Inside The World Of A Jordanian Nurse Doing Essential Work In The Pandemic

Nov 13, 2020
Originally published on November 16, 2020 3:32 am

Samah Ibrahim Tanieub is at home on break between nursing shifts in the Jordanian capitol, Amman – two weeks on the COVID-19 isolation ward and then another two weeks in quarantine before she can come home.

The long shifts are particularly difficult for Tanieub because she's a divorced single mother with four children, the youngest just five years old. The work doesn't pay more than her regular salary of about $650 a month but she volunteered for COVID-19 duty and says she loves her job as a nurse.

Her routine at work now includes putting on an N-95 mask, a double layer of gloves, protective overalls and eye goggles that leave sweat running into her eyes. But she is known for her engaging bedside manner – so much so that thank-you letters from her patients prompted a public thank you from Jordan's health minister.

"Sometimes you know patients are depressed and under stress – they're in a room for 16 days – and lonely," says Tuneiub, 33. "I talk with them and joke with them. I say think of me like your sister, or your daughter. If you want anything I am here."

In Jordan and other Arab countries, many conservative families look down on nursing as a profession for their daughters because it requires contact with strange men and working nights. But the pandemic is beginning to change that perception.

"Many, many people say 'thank you for working with corona patients' even on the bus," Tuneiub says. "I feel very good inside. It helps me respect myself also."

For poor families like Tuneiub's, nursing can be a step up. Tuneiub's mother, Helima Deeb Salam, takes care of the children when her daughter is at work.

Salam pushed Tuneiub to get married at the age of 15 – to a man almost twice her age – but says she now realizes she was wrong. A few months after the marriage, Salam helped her daughter re-enroll in tenth grade, hiding the fact she was pregnant.

Tuneiub graduated with a 98 percent average. She worked through high school and college to pay for her studies.

Her mother, who had dreamed of becoming a nurse herself, says her daughter has made her proud. And Tuneiub says she has no regrets about working in the COVID-19 ward.

"Nurses all over the world work with these patients," she says. "If I don't do it, who will?"

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All right. Now we have the story of a nurse working in a COVID isolation ward in Jordan. She's a single mom in a country where many conservative families look down on nursing as a profession for women - or at least they did until now. Here's NPR's Jane Arraf.

RAYAN: Two, three, four, five, six - eight, nine, 10...

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Rayan, who is 7, recites for his mother what he's learned in English class. He's in second grade.

EYAN: (Laughter).

ARRAF: His brother Eyan is 5. It was Eyan's first day of kindergarten. And in his new "Cars" backpack, along with the usual pencils and crayons, there's a mask and gloves and hand sanitizer.


ARRAF: Their mother, Samah Ibrahim Tanieub, make sure the boys know how to use them.

TANIEUB: Good boy.

ARRAF: Tanieub is 33 and a nurse in a COVID isolation ward in Amman's Prince Hamza Hospital. She was the first person from her poor family to get a college degree, and she's worked as a nurse for 13 years.

TANIEUB: Yes, I like my job. I like I am nurse.

ARRAF: But it's become a lot harder. It's not just a nurse's uniform now. There are overalls and eye goggles that make it hard to see.

TANIEUB: And N95 mask and double gloves and very difficult now - before, I work with patients easy, not same now.

ARRAF: Tanieub, though, is known for her positive attitude and for connecting with patients.

TANIEUB: Sometimes patients depression, under stress - you know, in the room 16 days or 13 days - lonely.

ARRAF: So she tells her patients to think of her as a sister or a daughter.

TANIEUB: Sometimes I talk with patient, joking. Not just I take blood - no, I talking with him. And for any patient, if you want anything, I am here joking, smiling.

ARRAF: In fact, thank-you letters from her patients prompted public recognition from Jordan's health minister, who thanked her in person. It's tough on her own family, moreso because Tanieub is a divorced single mother. Because of quarantine. she spends a month at a time away from home, staying in a hotel while she's working - all this for a standard nurse's salary of about $600 a month. Her mother, Helima Deeb Salam, takes care of the children when Tanieub is at work, and she's proud of her.

HELIMA DEEB SALAM: I am happy for Samah.

ARRAF: Salam was forced to marry before she finished high school, even though she dreamed of being a nurse. After her husband died, she made Samah marry at 15 and to someone almost twice her age. Salam, whose 68, now says she realizes it was a mistake.

SALAM: I am wrong.

ARRAF: She switches to Arabic to explain how she helped get her daughter back into school - 10th grade.

SALAM: (Though interpreter) She was pregnant, but they didn't know it. Her classmates only knew she was pregnant when she gave birth. She said, come and see - I have a baby.

ARRAF: Tanieub scored 98% on her final exams, enough to get into a university. She worked the night shift at a hospital and studied during the day to be able to go to college. For a girl from a poor family, nursing can be a step up. But many middle-class families discourage their daughters from becoming nurses because they have to have contact with men and work nights. Tanieub says people now in Jordan appreciate nurses more. She gets thanked in the street and at the private school her sons go to.

TANIEUB: Somebody know me and work in the hospital corona - very goof, thank you for you, thank you. Manager for school, she make discount for me for I am working in the corona.

ARRAF: Her young sons say they wish she'd stay at home.

TANIEUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "But aren't you happy I go to the hospital and make money to support us?" she asks them. Tanieub could have just done regular nursing work when the pandemic hit, but she volunteered to work with COVID-19 patients. If I don't do it, who will do it? she says.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.