International Nursing Day: nurses reveal challenges in a year like no other

Nurses who were pregnant reveal heartbreaking stories of survival as Covid-19 takes its toll on a profession under pressure

International Nurses Day on Wednesday focuses on the professionals at the sharp end of the global coronavirus pandemic, acknowledges the survivors of Covid-19, and remembers those who lost their lives.

For most nurses, it has not been an easy 12 months.

They risked their lives on the front line of health care every working day during the pandemic, caring not only for strangers struck down by the virus, but for their own families.

I would cry worrying if I would unknowingly transfer the infection to my loving boy

Anju Balachandran

May 12 marks the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the Italian-born English social reformer who established the great pillars of care which became the norm for modern nursing.

According to the International Council of Nurses, more than 1.6 million healthcare workers in 34 countries were infected by the coronavirus in 2020.

One was Resmi Nair, a 35-year-old registered nurse at Bareen International Hospital in MBZ City, Abu Dhabi.

Ms Nair, from India, caught the virus on January 26, and was forced to stay apart from her family, including her two-year-old daughter. They ended up contracting the virus.

“I had severe body ache, headaches and fever,” Ms Nair said.

“It was a very stressful situation for me, as we were all uncertain about what would happen next.

"I was also overly concerned about post-Covid-19 syndrome.

“I was having trouble sleeping, followed by severe mood swings, difficulty in concentrating, loss of smell and taste, severe body pain and stomach problems.

“I felt very miserable, both physically and mentally.”

Resmi Nair, nurse at Bareen International Hospital, is seen at her home in Mussafah. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
Resmi Nair, nurse at Bareen International Hospital, is seen at her home in Mussafah. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Ms Nair refused to quit, and after recovering she embarked on a journey of revitalisation, with more exercise and a healthy diet.

“I trained myself to develop a positive mindset and was able to recover within 26 days,” she said.

“Surviving this road full of hurdles would not have been possible if I did not have the support of my work and family.

"I returned to professional life stronger than before, mentally and physically, and was ready to do my duty.

“I hope that one day soon, my kids look back and feel proud of their mother as a nurse on the front line.”

Loss of a new life

Sruthy, a nurse at NMC Royal Hospital at Dubai Investments Park, was not so lucky.

Although she recovered from the virus, Sruthy was pregnant and suffered a miscarriage.

She described what felt like never-ending days dressed in full personal protective equipment, as the hospital faced a growing toll of Covid casualties.

“The patient numbers kept mounting,” Sruthy said.

“The perspiration and humidity accumulating in the mask got heavier, making it harder to draw breath, warranting me to be speaking louder to be heard.

“I was pregnant with my first child and was well into the second trimester.

“There were overwhelming concerns from my family on my own and my child’s safety.

"I walked daily into the unit to take care of at least half a dozen patients assigned to me," she said.

“The patients were young adults to grand old men and women, all having their own unique profiles and variable requirements, ranging from just the oxygen to ventilators and other life support equipment.”

Sruthy co-ordinated video calls between patients and their families, so they felt in touch during their treatment and that helped them to deal with their situations.

She would hurry between wards, managing critical care plans of each of the patients under her care.

As the days passed and the pandemic worsened, exhaustion set in. Shifts lengthened and the challenges piled up.

“Being first-time pregnant, a lack of rest and care for my nutrition was weighing on my mind,” Sruthy said.

“Going home every day to my loved ones was comforting, yet it brought the dangers of spreading the infection.

“Finally, the inevitable happened. I came out Covid-positive in routine testing and within 24 hours I had bleeding and, unfortunately, I had a miscarriage. I was devastated.

“I tried to gain confidence and comfort, not to look back but to think of the contributions to the patients I cared for," she said.

“The sense of satisfaction in doing my best possible – as it was very rewarding to see my patients heal and recover – gave me the sense and purpose to continue and take it each day as it came.”

Like all health workers, nurses are continuously providing high-quality care, often working without a break.

Sometimes nurses are the only health workers people see in a crisis, yet the profession is facing a global shortage.

According to the World Health Organisation, nurses account for more than half of all the world's health workers, yet 5.9 million more are needed, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Children give mother hope

Harsha Pushpan, a registered Nurse at Bareen International Hospital, MBZ City, Abu Dhabi, was eight months pregnant when she discovered she had the coronavirus.

I had never felt so emotionally broken before, but thinking about my daughter’s face kept me going

Harsha Pushpan, nurse

“I was really struggling for oxygen," she said.

“I could not walk or eat and did not see my loved ones for a long time.

“I was worried about my unborn baby and two-year-old daughter.

“I had never felt so emotionally broken before, but thinking about my daughter’s face kept me going. It gave me the courage to live.”

Ms Pushpan waited a month before she tested clear of the virus, but her condition took a further two months to stabilise.

She has since given birth to a healthy boy.

Nurse haunted by loneliness of the dying

Anju Balachandran
Anju Balachandran

Anju Balachandran, 31, led a team of nurses in the coronavirus ward at NMC Royal Hospital Sharjah.

Like others, she was also expecting a baby at the start of the outbreak and give birth in May last year.

Ms Balachandran continued to work on the ward throughout her pregnancy, giving emergency care to those most in need.

“We were ready to handle anything that came our way, but we barely knew how to deal with the situation,” she said.

“It was the fear of the unknown and the damage it could cause that was most worrying.

“I had a newborn baby and as much as it was meant to be a precious experience, I was on my guard each time I returned home after hospital.

“I wondered if it was safe to cuddle, safe to kiss my child, and I would cry worrying if I would unknowingly transfer the infection to my loving boy.”

The experienced nurse described the esprit de corps on her ward as colleagues pulled together to fight the infection.

She also witnessed the desperation and loneliness of those facing the virus.

“The disease isolates you,” she said.

“There was a fear of staying away from the family with no one to talk to. The biggest responsibility was to sound positive in the worst of situations.

“The feedback from our recovered patients makes this entire experience worthwhile, but we carry the memories of the ones we lost and that will stay with me forever.

“The loneliness of the patients near the brink of death haunts me even today.”

Updated: May 12, 2021 03:31 PM

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