Nursing Professor Visits EMERGENCY’s Programs in Afghanistan

EMERGENCY USA Volunteer Geraldine Gorman, PhD, RN recently traveled to Afghanistan to serve two weeks at Emergency’s hospitals. Here is a review of her experience:

Gerry in Afghanistan

I had the honor of spending two weeks in Afghanistan last summer under the auspices of the humanitarian war relief organization, Emergency. From late July to Mid-August of 2013 I was in Kabul, living in the staff headquarters and witnessing and participating in, to the extent to which I was able, the work within the Surgical Center for Civilian Victims of War. The experience was made possible through the support of the Nuveen Fund for International Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago which helped to offset the costs of travel, Rossella Miccio, the Director of Operations for Emergency International, Eric Talbert, Executive Director for Emergency USA and especially through the kindness and hospitality of Emanuele Naninni, Program Coordinator for Afghanistan who, along with his remarkable staff, welcomed me and patiently educated me.

I spent the majority of my time at the Surgical Center in Kabul. My stay coincided with the end of Ramadan which is always, according to Emergency’s staff, a time of increased violence. Indeed, July 2013 was the busiest month the hospital had yet experienced. On the final night of Ramadan there was a dramatic surge in admissions which included injuries from bullets, mines, shells and, to a lesser degree, motor vehicle accidents. Although I have practiced as a hospice nurse for over a decade, I was unprepared for the sheer volume of catastrophic injuries, most often affecting children, adolescents and young adults. Through it all, Emergency’s international  healthcare staff, which includes 3 nurses– from Serbia, England and Italy– a senior Italian surgeon, Italian anesthetist and Serbian Radiology technician worked tirelessly beside the national staff, treating the wounded and supervising the local healthcare staff in training. They were assisted by Emergency administrative staff which include the Program Director and Logistician who ensured the security and safety of healthcare personnel, patients and families. In some cases, the international staff are on-call 24 hours 7 days a week. Their dedication, as well as the repercussions of such ubiquitous stress, were humbling to behold.

In addition to the time in Kabul, I was also able to visit the Anabah hospital in Panjshir. Here I met the international staff who care for the largely pediatric and gynecological patient population. Again, the dedication and camaraderie of the staff were as striking as the mountain vistas and exquisitely tended gardens that comprise the hospital grounds. Before leaving I was able to tour some of the 40 primary health care centers and first aid posts that Emergency supports throughout the rugged and remote countryside, often providing the only healthcare available for hundreds of miles.

My experience as a hospice nurse has been in caring for those dying from chronic and terminal diseases. I had never witnessed such a tragic assault on the young and the innocent. While it brought home with devastating clarity the utter futility and absurdity of war, it also highlighted the valor that attends such suffering. Thanks to Emergency’s highly trained and deeply committed health care staff and the state of the art facilities they operate, children with life-threatening injuries survived and were privy to accompanying rehabilitative services on the hospital grounds. During my very short visit I saw many children admitted with wounds I was not sure they would survive, only to see them days later supporting their chest tubes as they were transported into rehab. Days later, freed of their chest tubes, they would be sitting in the sun drenched flower gardens outside their wards. The resiliency of the human spirit proved pervasive.

Much about Afghanistan’s future remains uncertain. Tensions run high; congestion threatens urban gridlock. What is not in question is the perseverance of Emergency’s staff and the integrity of their services. I hope that we in the United States may find substantive ways to support this vital work, perhaps in the ancillary areas of palliative and end of life care. In the meantime, behind the walled hospital in Kabul and high in the mountains of Panjshir, the gardens of Emergency remain in full bloom, offering healing and hope to all the war weary individuals, who make their way to the gates.

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