Dubai: One of the most endearing images of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that of nurses in PPE, keeping round-the-clock vigil in Intensive Care Units around the world and providing critical care to those in isolation and away from loved ones. On World Nursing Day, we pay tribute to their untiring work, many a times at their own peril as we have seen thousands among them test positive and struggle to survive
In the UAE, nurses from various nationalities and genders rose to the challenge of rendering yeoman service and going beyond the call of duty in managing the pandemic.
Many had to keep away from their families, work without leave, put in over 12 hours of work in challenging situations. Yet most of them worked silently and selflessly, bringing relief to the overwhelming patient load. Those who were not on COVID-19 duty had a far greater challenge to meet as they had to fill in the shoes of their colleagues and make sure non-COVID-19 patients received the standard quality of care. Gulf News spoke to some of the nurses who continue to battle the pandemic spiritedly even today.
“My mother would call every day, scared for my life”
Sumble Raza, a registered ICU nurse at the NMC Royal Hospital, Sharjah, was one of the first COVID ICU nurses to deal with the first afflicted patients admitted under her care. The 34- year-old from Lahore, Pakistan, joined the hospital in 2012, and since then has been one of the main breadwinners of her family. Dedicated to her job, she was at the forefront of the COVID-19 ward and still is, taking care of four COVID-19 patients as of this week.
Initially, with little information about the virus, she admitted being scared. “Despite the PPE, there was little information about the mode of transmission in the beginning and being overwhelmed with so many patients, we worked beyond 12 hours. So yes, we were afraid. More than, me, my aged parents were scared. My mother still calls me every evening to make sure I am keeping safe,” said Raza, who shares her apartment with her younger sister, also a nurse at the hospital.
Raza’s secret to coping with the situation was being ‘positive’ in mind, body and spirit for her patients. “I am overwhelmed by what I witness every day. Each and every patient I dealt with, has so far fought the disease bravely. Only some were gifted their lives back and many succumbed to the disease. I feel honoured to have touched their lives, to have held their hand and cared for them. Each time we lost a patient, I carried the burden home as losing someone is not easy. Some patients stayed on for months and they stayed on in our hearts even after they were discharged,” reminisced Raza.
“I conceived during the lockdown and worked throughout pregnancy”
Tintu Thomas, 32, a registered nurse at the Medcare Women and Children’s Hospital, Dubai, conceived her first child in March 2020 just when the pandemic began in the UAE. Yet she would report to work at 5.45am every day for her shift, which concluded in the evening at 8.30. “In the beginning, I used to take the bus and metro routes from my home in Sports City, later my husband began dropping and picking me up,” recounted Thomas, who was shifted to the non-COVID ward owing to her pregnancy. “In the earlier days, it was very difficult to differentiate the COVID-19 patients as many coming in to the ER [emergency room] were not even aware if they had the virus. I had a scare in the beginning when one of the patients I had cared for turned to be positive. Luckily, I was negative and my PPE protected me. That stressed me, out especially since I felt so vulnerable in my condition. I actually thought of quitting my job,” said Thomas, whose love for her job helped her overcome her fear and she continued working.
“I felt it was my job to bring some relief to patients under my care,” said Thomas, who delivered a baby boy, Zayn Thomas in November 2020 and is thankful for a supportive husband and in-laws who have been her backbone through the challenging times.
“I cared for COVID-19 patients as my own family”
Stephanie Billones, 32, ER nurse at the Prime Hospital, overcame her fear to care for COVID-19 patients. “In the beginning it felt, emotionally, physically and mentally draining to deal with an illness which we knew very little about. But I always reasoned with myself. If this was my family, I would have given everything to care for them and that is how I approached each patient,” recalled Billiones, who has been holding a 12-hour shift of 7am to 7pm since the pandemic began. Her ways to survive the crisis included keeping herself away from depression by telling herself this situation would pass. “We nurses supported each other through the fear and took care of each other emotionally. It is over a year and we are relieved the cases have declined and we all hope for quick end to the situation,” said the Filipina.
“I was scared when I tested positive”
Mahmood Saqer, 34, a male nurse-in-charge at the Emergency Room, has been working for over a decade at the Canadian Specialist Hospital. He absolutely loves his job as it brings relief to the sick and the needy. “In the early days of the pandemic, it felt very suffocating working in full PPE for over 12 hours as there was so many people turning up sick. There was no time to think of anything, but when I tested positive in February 2020, I was scared and worried I might infect my loved ones, my wife, Tojan, my three year old son Wissam. However, after a 14-day quarantine period, I tested negative and was happy to be back in my job with the feeling of fear gone completely,” said the Jordanian father of two, with a younger daughter, Yara, who was born during the pandemic and is 10 months old.
Saqer said despite the challenges, he would never trade his job for another profession. “I think there is something inherently noble in my work when I am able to bring smile and relief to the sick. I wouldn’t want to change my profession for anything.”
Superheroes of our times
Rosmin Molly Thomas is the kind of nurse who should be wearing a superhero cape. Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, NMC ProVita International Medical Centre, Abu Dhabi, the long-term care hospital where she joined in 2015, confirmed its very first COVID-19 patient, an infant Emirati baby boy with multiple congenital conditions.
There was a sense of panic and fear as already staff were being stretched to the limits due to ongoing quarantine and sick leave due to the virus. The hospital wasn’t equipped to handle infectious diseases or have negative pressure rooms. so a decision was made to transfer the baby to an ICU in another hospital along with a nurse attending on the baby. Not many were willing to volunteer for such a job, but Thomas willingly stepped forward.
“I had been with this child and wanted to care for him while he suffered this new infection. I knew how much this would mean for baby’s family to have a familiar face to deal with, especially when no one else could visit the child,” said the Indian nurse who treated the sick child like her third son. Due to her stay with this child, she was unable to meet her two small kids and had to live in a separate room.
Thomas cared for the baby boy until he tested negative and returned to the Pro Vita care Centre.
How COVID-19 empowered the UAE nurses
Holding up the front lines, nurses have gained a greater degree of empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is not likely to change in the near future, said Liza Shaqman, a Jordanian charge nurse and unit manager at the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha). And even though this empowerment has come amid much personal concerns, Shaqman, who has 20 years of experience as a nurse, said she would still opt for the same career, were the choice presented to her today.
“You can just contribute so much to society as a nurse, and this role has become even more obvious and important amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, we had to overcome initial apprehension at the start of the pandemic about how we might bring COVID-19 home to our loved ones, but the additional steps like showering immediately after getting home and become much more vigilant about infection control have now become second nature. Moreover, we are continuing to save lives and reassure many a scared patient, and the sense of achievement in this is unparalleled,” Shaqman said.
Like all other health care professionals, Shaqman — a mother of four — had to deal with a steep learning curve when it came to COVID-19. There were also days when she stayed away from her family, and the challenges that came with rapidly learning the medical treatment and diagnostic protocols about a previously unknown condition.
“In addition, we began to see bigger patient volumes, and the entire workflow underwent an overhaul. Whereas we were earlier often dealing with seasoned patients, COVID-19 required much more alertness as we were pushed to the front lines,” she said.
Yet, Shaqman said these challenges are good for the field. “Nursing requires continual learning, and the pandemic has made this very obvious. With access to the right training, this kind of learning and responsibility is good for everyone,” she said.
The Abu Dhabi-based nursing professional remembered when she first decided that she wanted to become a nurse. “A cousin of mine was a nurse, and as a 16-year-old, she looked like an angel in scrubs to me. These many years later, that is exactly the image that comes to mind when I think of a nurse and I am proud to be part of the noble profession, especially as I oversee COVID-19 vaccination for the community,” she added.
For Jamela Ahmed Alim, senior charge nurse and unit manager at Seha, the COVID-19 crisis has made her an even more empathetic and vigilant nurse. “As a student pondering career choices, I knew I wanted to do something to help others. Nursing seemed like a natural fit because I would often accompany my grandmother on hospital visits and tend to her. So I chose to study nursing, knowing that being able to help another human being would bring tremendous reward,” Alim said.
Like Shaqman, Alim also boasts more than 20 years of work as a nurse, and her three grown children are proud of her for it. “None of them pursued nursing, but they always express just how proud they are of me for what I do,” she said.
New medical needs
Needless to say, the pandemic has presented some of the biggest challenges in her career till date. Faced with the outbreak, Alim was part of the first teams that introduced drive-through PCR testing in the UAE. She and her colleagues also learnt that they had to be much more alert and vigilant on the front lines.
But even though the COVID-19-related changes may have made nursing more challenging, Alim feels that it has also become a more sought-after career choice. Instead of dissuading today’s students from the profession, she feels that the added responsibility has galvanised interest in nursing.
“At our clinics, we see many young volunteers lending a hand. With the increased global need for registered nurses amid the pandemic, this is certainly a very positive sign,” Alim added.
While she continued to do her best at work, the long-term nurse also had to ensure her family’s safety. “My husband is diabetic, so I had to be especially careful. I showered immediately after getting home, and adhered strictly to all preventive measures. It felt difficult at first, but we soon came to accept it, especially as it became obvious how much more my patients looked to me for assurance,” the senior nursing professional said.
Mubadala Health stresses need for nurse training
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the integral role played by nurses in the health care sector, and senior officials at Mubadala Health hope that the increased focus on the profession will encourage more Emiratis to join the field. “The pandemic has highlighted the crucial role played by these dedicated and skilled professionals, and we hope this will elevate further the status of nursing as a career. In alignment with Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s mission to maintain a strong, sustainable health care sector, Emiratisation in health care is a key priority for Mubadala Health, as is providing excellent training and career opportunities for all health care workers including nurses,” said Hasan Al Nowais, chief executive officer of Mubadala Health.
The Abu Dhabi Government-owned health care provider has an Emirati professional training programme in places across all its facilities, in addition to supplemental programmes across specific hospitals.
Abeer AlBlooshi, senior clinical director of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s nursing, surgical and transplant institute, said there is still a need to change perceptions about the profession. “We need to change the way the nursing profession is viewed so that people will see it as the rewarding and challenging career choice that it is. According to some recent reports, it is estimated that only about eight per cent of nurses at public hospitals are Emirati,” AlBlooshi said.
“We also need to focus on specialisation and advance practice, in addition to postgraduate studies for the existing workforce, and even showcase the incredible diversity of roles and skill sets within the profession,” she added.