Desperation mixed with a sliver of hope; the macabre fused with healing and, surprisingly, happiness.
The images 23-year-old registered nurse Kalisse Barwich carried with her from her three weeks at Memorial Christian Hospital in Malumghat, Bangladesh are both haunting and enduring.
A TWU grad and Clayton Heights resident, Barwich was part of a Samaritan’s Purse contingent at a hospital that’s treating Rohingya refugees. She was one of seven Canadian nurses who travelled to the South Asian country to do the work.
Almost one million impoverished Rohingya people have fled violence in Myanmar and are now living in temporary huts, tents, and under tarps in refugee camps in Bangladesh. More than half of those who have arrived are children, the United Nations says.
Samaritan’s Purse Canada deployed medical personnel to Bangladesh to help the refugees, and continues to work with local partners to distribute blankets, tarps, hygiene kits, and other emergency items. The organization is also determining how its experience providing safe water in emergencies can assist Rohingya families.
The hospital in which Barwich was stationed is about a 90-minute drive from the refugee camps.
Barwich worked in a 24-bed Rohingya care unit, which the hospital added a few months prior to the Samaritan’s Purse team’s arrival.
“We worked 12-hour shifts and did both day and night shifts depending on our schedule,” related Barwich, now home and working at Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Surrey Memorial Hospital in pediatrics.
Her long days at the care unit consisted of administering medications, dressing wounds, preparing patients for surgery, and monitoring patients post-operatively.
The Canadian team worked alongside local Bengali translators, medics and nurses as well as the international long-term doctors and nurses.
While she was there, a conversation with a young man who came to the hospital with a gunshot wound gave Barwich a “glimpse into the brutality the Rohingya people have experienced and the atrocities that they are fleeing from,” she shared.
The bullet fractured his femur, which Barwich could see sticking through his thigh when the nurses changed the dressing.
His wound was a few months old and had become infected because he was unable to get proper medical care.
“I don’t know the details of his story, but as I thought about how he got to Bangladesh I realized he would have had to either been carried or walked on his broken femur for weeks in order to make it to safety,” Barwich said. “As we talked with the surgeon he explained to us that many of his young male patients with gunshot wounds had been shot from behind, suggesting that they were running away and fleeing.”
She also grew close to a 20-year-old woman who had a hip abscess, which impeded her from walking on her own and caused her a lot of pain.
Despite being at the hospital for months and trying multiple treatments, the woman was not improving and her wound was at the point where little could be done for her, other than to teach her mother to change the bandage and give her the dressing supplies.
“For me, this experience was particularly difficult because we had to send her home without being able to improve her medical condition,” Barwich said.
“It was heartbreaking to think of what was ahead for her, being a 20-year-old living in the bad conditions of a refugee camp, unable to walk without assistance.”
From this came the realization that there are times nurses can’t come up with all the answers, Barwich said.
“Yet even in this seemingly hopeless situation, two local Bengali staff were able to give her a glimmer of hope through the way they cared for her. As she was leaving they bent down to her as she wept and prayed with her, slipped a little gift into her hands and gave her their personal phone number so that she could call them if she ever needed anything,” Barwich said.
“Although the situation seemed hopeless, the local staff were able to show her a glimmer of hope in the way they cared for her, showing her love.”
In fact, many of the situations Barwich experienced were heartbreaking yet she says there was also “so much redemption and hope as I cared for these people and witnessed the local Bengali Christians caring for the Rohingya people.”
A little girl Barwich estimated was five years old, whom the medical staff called ‘Sunshine’ because of her radiant smile and contagious joy, had a bone infection in her leg from an old fracture.
“As she began to heal and walk again she would go visit the other children on the unit that were unable to get out of bed,” Barwich said. “She would bring them toys and play with them.”
During her three-week stay, Barwich had just three days off, spread in between her shifts. On one of her days off, Barwich visited a refugee camp and the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) clinic in the camps which she noted seem overcrowded, and the risk for disease “appeared extremely high.”
“It was an eye-opening experience to see the living conditions of the camps and what work is being done there to prevent and treat a wide variety of issues,” Barwich said.
Knowing the discrimination the Rohingya refugees have experienced, Barwich said it was difficult at times “to know my patients’ full stories because of the language barrier but often when I looked into their eyes I saw deep pain and suffering of which I cannot even imagine. The situation of the Rohingya people is heartbreaking and desperate.”
However, her time spend with the Rohingya people was very fulfilling.
“As I return to work I feel that I am coming back a much better nurse, and have learned that nursing is so much more than just the medical tasks that I do,” Barwich said.
“As a nurse, I have the opportunity to not only care for people physically but also emotionally and spiritually. I have the opportunity no matter where I am nursing, to show people that they have value and that no matter where they are coming from they are cared for and loved.”