A call of duty, Part 1

TEN years ago today, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. Kuwait’s workforce which formed majority of the estimated 1.6 million residents then was consequently affected. Among the workers who rendered continuous service to the few remaining Kuwaitis and other nationals in Kuwait, after that ‘exodus’ during the first three months following the invasion, were health professionals. In fact, hospitals were the only major institutions functioning then and were manned by the very few doctors, nurses, technologists and other health personnel who selflessly chose to stay and heeded the call of duty.

Many people must have wondered how these health workers survived the hard work and the harsh situation and I believe very few stories surfaced after the liberation. What I am going to relate here is that story which I have dreamed too long to turn into a book and which I planned to publish today. Alas, time has not been that kind to me that I now end up giving instead some portions of what actually transpired during those difficult and challenging times.

First 24-hour duty

September 23, 1990 (Sunday). I reported to Nursery for my regular morning duty at 7 am. There were 16 newly-born babies. I was with one of the two remaining Indian nurses. The rest of the Indian nurses and staff didn’t report for work as they were all leaving Kuwait the following day. We were busy inasmuch as most of the babies needed special care having been born prematurely. I took off at 1.30 pm and came back at 2 pm for the second shift of duty. I was with two Filipina domestic helpers who were earlier hired by the hospital for help. In the ward, there were two Filipina nurses newly hired as well. I divided my work between the Nursery and the ward since the new nurses were new to the hospital routine. They were ex dental clinic nurses who chose to remain in Kuwait.

When the night shift came, I found myself alone with 22 female patients in the main ward; two elderly male patients one floor below; and 16 newly-born babies in the Nursery. I assigned two Filipina helpers (different from the ones in the morning) in the Nursery while I attended to patients in the ward. I only had one Bangladeshi (the only original “farash” or cleaner left behind) for help in the ward.

There were three newly-operated (CS) patients admitted in rooms far apart from each other; two diabetics and four others awaiting delivery; a bleeding woman in her early stage of pregnancy; and a number of newly delivered mothers all complaining of pain. I was running from one room to another, to the Nursery and to the Male Ward one floor below. I do not know how I managed the work but I was sane enough when I endorsed the patients the following morning to a co-Filipina; the two male patients to an Egyptian colleague; and the babies to the Indian nurse in the Nursery. I managed to sleep afterwards for five hours then was called back again to attend to a premature baby and straight to night duty.

A challenge

September 25, 1990 (Tuesday). I just finished my second night duty – was again alone in the wards. The Indian nurse who was to take over the Nursery did not report as she was finally forced to leave Kuwait. I checked the premature baby (born the other day) inside the incubator and seeing her to be alright, I set to leave for a much-needed sleep uncertain whether I can report back or not to night duty that day. I gave instructions earlier to another three Filipina helpers to ask help from the two nurses in the ward and to call the Pediatrician who was attending to out-patients that day. On my way out, I met the father (a Kuwaiti) of the premature baby, bringing with him a bottle of breast milk. After learning that his baby will be left for hours under the care of three unqualified staff, and after finding out that I might not come back, he got furious and started to shout. He did not give me at all a chance to explain my situation. Feeling tired, sleepy and hungry, all I did was to listen to his angry outburst.

“What will happen to my baby and to all the other patients when all of you are leaving?,” he said.

I felt his anguish and was challenged at the same time. For a while, I forgot about myself and went back to the Nursery. I was later on sent up to the hostel to sleep by the Pediatrician who came to the Nursery for his regular check of the babies.

A miracle

September 27, 1990 (Thursday). I was again on night duty, my fourth in a row. It was 2 am and I just finished giving milk (through tube feeding) to the same premature baby and was halfway through my preparation of medicines and IV solutions for the patients in the ward when suddenly there was a power black-out. I immediately ran back to the Nursery to check the baby in the incubator. I found her completely blue and not breathing at all! By then the hospital’s emergency power was on. I asked one of the helpers to call a doctor while I resuscitated the baby. By the time the doctor arrived, the baby was already breathing, though a difficult one. After looking at the still bluish baby, I overheard him say: “What do I know about babies?” Stethoscope in hand, he listened to the baby’s chest, nodded his head and left in a hurry. A few minutes after he was gone, the baby suddenly stopped breathing again and turned completely blue.

The doctor was called back and I did the same resuscitative measures. Before he left for the second time, he told me not to call him again as there is nothing he could do. He was busy himself assisting mothers delivering babies and he was tired, hungry and sleepy as well. He said that the baby was lucky enough to have survived that long as she was only 32 weeks old and weighed 1.1 kilograms. But I did not give up. I sent one helper out to the main ward and I continued reviving the baby each time she had the apneic attack. I was praying and crying at the same time urging the baby to fight for her life. I was thinking then about the father, who, since her birth, would come early morning and brave the dangers outside just to bring the much-needed breast milk. I was thinking particularly of what he would do when he finds his baby dead. So I fought; and so did the baby! I did not leave her side even when the Pediatrician finally arrived at 6 am (he had been called continuously earlier). When the father arrived at around 7 am, this time with his American wife, the baby was already breathing normally.

As there was still a possibility for the baby to have the same apneic attacks and as I was the only qualified nurse to attend to her, the doctor decided to have the baby transferred to a government hospital. (Two weeks later, I saw the baby alive and strong when I went to transfer another premature baby. I went to her and I remember telling her: “Fight on baby! Your country will soon be free!”)

When I came back from the transfer at around 11 am, a Filipina friend of mine (married to a British who was in hiding then) was waiting for me at the Reception area. She was due to deliver her baby. I stayed with her until she delivered her baby girl at around 5 pm and with her baby in the Nursery for another two hours as the baby came out blue and having difficulty of breathing. When the baby was stable enough, only then I went to sleep after more than 24 hours of being awake.

A ward re-extended

Early November 1990. One early evening, I was called from sleep to settle a dispute between a staff nurse in the main ward and an employee in the Reception. A patient was admitted in spite of an earlier instruction to the Reception personnel not to admit anymore patients as the ward was already full. As it was, the main ward stationed in Female Section 2 (which is adjacent to the Nursery) was already extended to Female Section 1. And with only two qualified nurses on duty, it was really impossible to attend to all the patients. Helpers (all Filipinas), although numerous then, still lacked qualifications and training.

I found out that the newly-admitted patient to one of the rooms at Female Section 3, came by ambulance from Al-Amiri Hospital, one of the five government hospitals functioning then. She was pregnant and bleeding. I attended to her personally, fixing her IV drip and making her comfortable. She was crying and begging me to save her baby! I reassured her that we will do the best we can and told her not to worry. In between attending to her, I arranged for the re-opening of the FS3 in preparation for the coming patients. I understood then that all Kuwaitis were coming to our hospital for admission. By then there were additional staff hired and with enough supervision, patient care, although qualityless, went on.

The same patient delivered her baby in the hospital four months after. Kuwait was liberated then but because of a lack of qualified staff, my work was still heavy and exhausting. I was attending then to a particular sick baby and only when he was transferred to Sabah Hospital had I known that his mother was the same woman I attended to a few months earlier whose case started the opening of another ward which led to extended care for more Kuwaitis in need of hospitalization.

Author: Freda Editha O. Contreras
Published on: August 2, 2000




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