NAT 200429 AL ZAHRA HOSPITAL-31-1589358379964
A nurse working at the Covid-19 intensive Care Unit at Al Zahra hospital in Sharjah. Photo : Virendra Saklani/Gulf News Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Ramadan is a spiritually demanding month every year, and worshippers gear up to spend days in abstinence and nights in prayer. But this year, medical professionals across the UAE are having to deal with the stresses of combatting the coronavirus on the frontlines as they complete their acts of worship.

Juggling between family and patients, these Muslim nurses and doctors are doing their best in the line of duty while also tending to the increasing number of patients.

Dr Faisal Dalvi

“Every year, Iftar is normally a family affair, but now I sometimes make it home on the stroke of iftar, sometimes later. There are just too many patients we have to check up on everyday, in addition to outpatient appointments. So instead of the six-hour Ramadan workday, we regularly end up working for more than eight hours a day,” Dr Faisal Dalvi, internal medicine specialist at Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi told Gulf News.

Rana Al Sayed, a nurse at Medcare Hospital Sharjah’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit who hails from Jordan, said time is the biggest constraint this Ramadan.

Rana Al Sayed

“With 12-hour workdays and Ramadan-related chores, we are always rushing from one chore or duty to another. And to make sure I am able to serve up meals, I spend my two off days a week preparing food that we can have during the week,” Al Sayed said.

Time management difficulties

This year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, fasting medical professionals must abstain from food and drink for more than 14 hours. Most of these hours are on the job, and there is the added pressure of prepping healthy meals when one gets home.

Dr Maha Osman

“My sons are aged 12 and 10, and they are both fasting this year. And because of the movement restrictions, my parents who were visiting are also staying with us. I feel that it is my duty to give them the delicacies they enjoy during Ramadan despite the coronavirus restrictions, so I spend time every night preparing sambusek and meat that can be eaten the next day,” said Dr Maha Osman, family medicine specialist at Medcare Medical Centre – Mirdiff Uptown.

The doctor and mother-of-three finishes what is normally a nine-hour shift in the late afternoon, and has to fit in a quick trip to the grocery store. Like all healthcare workers, she rushes into the shower as soon as she gets home, shrugging away the embraces of her five-year-old daughter.

Dr Naveed Ahmed

Dr Naveed Ahmed, interventional cardiologist at Aster Hospital Mankhool, said both he and his dermatologist wife have to follow the same sanitisation procedures when they get home in order to keep their daughters safe. This includes leaving shoes outside the door, a shower, and putting clothes in for washing.

“Fortunately, we have been able to make it home on time for iftar on most days so far,” Dr Ahmed said.

Not all healthcare workers are able to get home though, including nurses like Alsayed, who said she often finds herself scarfing down some food on her way home.

Hasna Kakki, an inpatient nurse at the LLH Hospital, said she too often ends her fast while still at work.

Hasna Kakki

“I have some dates and water from the meals we are provided at the time of iftar, and usually wait to have a full meal when I get home. Sometimes, this can be as late as 10pm,” Kakki said.

The nurse, who is also expecting her first child, said the demands of fasting are her smallest concern when working in a hospital during this current pandemic.

“I wished to fly to India to manage my pregnancy but this is not a possibility given the current situation,” she said ruefully.

Fasting in PPE

For most doctors and nurses, the hot personal protective equipment also makes fasting difficult.

Dr Dalvi said he has to put on a full hazmat suit and an N95 mask when he checks on COVID-19 patients.

“During these rounds, I also have to put on gloves, gowns and shoe covers, and change them every time I see a new patient. It is hot and uncomfortable, and definitely makes the fast more tiring,” he explained.

Protecting the elderly

The strife to protect family members from contracting the coronavirus is also real, and often interferes with Ramadan family time and interactions.

Dr Dalvi, who lives with his elderly parents in the capital, says he is no longer to share iftar with them as he has always done.

“I maintain adequate distancing from them even at home. And for their part, they are so worried that they always ask me to take some leave and stay home,” the doctor said.

'Hardest Ramadan as a nurse'

Despite these challenges, the dedication and motivation of healthcare professionals towards their jobs and spiritual commitments is undeniable.

“We miss the Ramadan trips to the masjid and the communal iftars. And work is difficult. But we believe that Allah will reward us for all of this,” Dr Ahmed said.

Alsayed said this has been her hardest Ramadan as a nurse yet.

“In my nine years of being a nurse, I’ve never had to fast and work through a pandemic. So it is tough, but it is what is required,” she said.

Dr Dalvi agreed.

“It may be a big risk, but I took an oath to serve people as a doctor, just as I am duty-bound to fast as a Muslim. Allah will surely bless us for these sacrifices,” he said.

Fasting exemption for frontliners

Prior to the start of Ramadan, the UAE’s Fatwa Council, which issues directives on matters of Islamic jurisprudence, ruled that frontline medical workers are permitted not to fast.

According to Islamic rulings, those who are unwell are exempted from fasting, and the Council explained that this applies to those who have contracted the coronavirus. In addition, it said that frontline medical workers are also permitted not to fast while on duty if they fear that fasting could weaken their immunity or cause them to provide inadequate care to patients.

In spite of this, Gulf News found that the majority of Muslim frontliners are braving the fast even as they discharge their medical duties. Many said they could not pass up on the opportunity to fulfill this exalted act of worship during the holy month.