Nissrin works 13 hours a day to feed her children. Spending her days tending to sick and bullet-ridden bodies, she is increasingly worried that the day will come when she will be the one lying on the operating table.
“I love to help people. I graduated in nursing with the aim of helping to save lives but in the past two years, we are losing more [lives] than improving health conditions,” Nissrin said. “I am stressed and sometimes I go into an empty room behind the hospital’s cafeteria to cry and alleviate the tension that I am living under.”
Iraq is suffering a dearth of nurses. Those who could afford to have already fled to neighbouring countries. Those with working husbands stay at home, afraid of the escalating violence. But the rest must soldier on in their fight against fear and poverty.
“They are our main support. Without their work, doctors cannot do their job because nurses are the ones who maintain the lives of patients after the medical diagnosis. Losing their work means losing lives,” said Dr Yehia al-Mawin, senior official at the Ministry of Health’s strategy department. He added that women represent 80% of all nurses.
More than 160 nurses have been murdered since the USled invasion of Iraq in 2003 and more than 400 wounded, according to al- Mawin. In addition, he said thousands had fled the country or were forced to leave their work after receiving threats from insurgents and militia fighters.
Nissrin said she feels like a warrior herself. With a salary of US$150 a month, she struggles to make ends meet. “Our salary was always one of the worst in the country, but families used to give us extra money when we delivered their children, or when patients had successful operations or treatments. But today, even this extra benefit has disappeared,” Nissrin told IRIN.
“People are getting poorer and cannot afford to [give nurses money]. Often, the [patients’] family does not have money even to buy medicines,” she said.
On the one day off she has each week, she goes in search of food to buy. Most of the shops in her neighbourhood are closed because of ongoing sectarian violence, so she has to walk to another district, and take more risks in the process, to get food. With her meagre salary, she said a typical meal might be some rice, beans and a carrot.
Meat is too expensive, she said, and she had stopped eating it anyway because it reminds her of dead bodies. “After what I see in the hospital with the victims of attacks, it is hard to imagine eating something like that,” she said.
Nissrin starts work at 7am. At lunchtime, she takes a two-hour break to pick her sons up from school, warm up some food for them and then go back to the hospital. “I prepare the food every night after I return from hospital at 10pm. I check if the children did their homework, clean the house and sleep like a rock,” she said.
If her children fall ill, Nissrin asks a neighbour to help look after them. Once, when they were particularly sick, she asked her boss if she could take time off to tend to them. “He just said that two lives were not more important than the hundreds that come into the hospital on a daily basis in need of my services,” she said.
Weak and disheartened When she feels weak and disheartened, she pulls out a photo of her children and reminds herself why she endures what she does. She dreams of a day when nurses will be respected and appreciated for what they do.
“Sometimes I feel indignation that even with millions of people depending on our work, they still see us as a lowly profession and treat us badly,” she said.
With more than 150 patients to look after on a typical day, Nissrin has the additional burden of having to accept physical and verbal abuse from angry patients, or their friends and relatives.
“In the most recent incident, a husband of a patient broke a glass over my head because his wife urinated and was late changing her. I tried to explain that 50 injured patients had just arrived in the hospital and we were just three [nurses] helping the doctors. He told me that I was useless and beat me,” Nessrin said.
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