After working with Médecins Sans Frontières in Liberia at the tail end of the Ebola epidemic, Australian nurse Emma Parker spent almost six months at Al-Salam Hospital in Khamir, Yemen. Emma talks about the responsibilities of being Head Nurse and her experiences with the Yemeni people.
“I had worked as a nurse in Melbourne and also in Indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory. Working in these remote districts was good preparation for going into the field with Médecins Sans Frontières – there are similarities in that people wait until they’re really sick before they come to the hospital. I was glad to have had that experience. As Head Nurse at Al-Salam Hospital, my official duties were to supervise and support nurses, organise rosters and assist with the running of the pharmacy. In reality, I got involved in a bit of everything. People liked to show me the leaking roof! As a nurse your drive is to be with patients, so it was sometimes frustrating to be drawn away to deal with administration. It was always a bit of a balancing act. Of course if there was a large influx of patients or another emergency I stepped in to provide direct care, but otherwise it was about the other value I could add, and the legacy I would leave.
"As a nurse your drive is to be with patients, so it was sometimes frustrating to be drawn away to deal with administration. It was always a bit of a balancing act."
An example is training. The Yemeni nurses are educated; you’re not teaching them how to take a temperature. I focused more on advanced care – treating malnourished children, resuscitation – things like that. As a nurse in Australia you do a lot without the doctor. I’m not talking about administering medications, more so thinking ahead and being prepared. In Yemen, nurses don’t do these things unless directly instructed. So I also tried to guide them in that respect. Getting the nurses to think, “Ok, the patient has these symptoms. What do I need to get ready?” The people were the absolute highlight of my time in Yemen. When you read about the country you get a sense that people are ‘closed’; the women are covered and it appears to be a serious and conservative society. In many ways that wasn’t my experience. Yes, there is a divide between men and women, and things that are simple in Australia are not simple there because of that. But they are very friendly people.
The women are very affectionate, they give a lot. And I found the men to be quite open to me. I was head nurse but I’m still a young female. People mightn’t think they’d be respectful of that but they were. They had no problem shaking my hand. I was there during Ramadan and, along with some of the other international staff, I decided to take part. It didn’t seem right to eat in front of people who were fasting. Our Yemeni colleagues appreciated our participation, and many of them invited us to break fasts with their families. We experienced a real closeness. Once, we were at the nearby internally displaced persons (IDP) camp and two families who were living in one tent insisted that we share their scant food and water. We tried to politely decline but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. It makes you think, how many people in that situation would behave that way?”