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Hands-on experience is secret of Bunj nurse's success

South Sudan. Surgeon providing life-line to 200,000 refugees named as UNHCR's 2018 Nansen Refugee Award winner

Hands-on experience is secret of Bunj nurse's success

Sediq Faruk works closely with the surgeon and the team at Bunj Hospital, where fighters from both sides are treated equally.
25 September 2018
Sedik Faruk works as a scrub nurse in the hospital's operating theatre. Like many of the staff, Faruk has been trained on the job by lead surgeon, Dr. Evan Atar Adaha.

Nurse Sediq Faruk has learnt by doing. He did not attend nursing school.

First, he washed patients and cleaned wounds.

Then he mastered how to extract teeth and lance abscesses. He acquired new skills in the operating room and became a scrub nurse. In a setting where every second counts, Faruk works closely with the surgeon and the team, sometimes administering anaesthetics and always anticipating the surgeon’s needs. Faruk instinctively knows what the surgeon wants.

“I read his mind in surgery,” says Faruk, 32. “I know exactly how many sutures he uses. I just know what he is thinking.”

Faruk has known the surgeon, Dr. Evan Atar Adaha, since he was a teenager. Dr. Atar (he goes by his middle name), a South Sudanese, was running a hospital in Kurmuk in Sudan’s Blue Nile state, treating wounded civilians as well as fighters from both sides of the civil war.

In 1997, when Dr. Atar arrived in Kurmuk, he had no nurses. First, he trained 15 young Sudanese men, but the hospital ran out of food, so he sent them back to their families.

He then began training 18 young women who had worked in a clinic that had recently closed. One by one, they left to get married. As a last resort, he went to a military recruiting centre to ask for some conscripts. Faruk was one of them.

“Dr. Atar is like a father to me, and sometimes he is very strict.”

“In Blue Nile, I was a nurse in the wards for about six months and then Dr. Atar gradually gave me more responsibilities,” says Faruk. “Dr. Atar is like a father to me and sometimes he is very strict. He sees us as his children.”

In 2011, as the war in Blue Nile intensified, Dr. Atar and tens of thousands of civilians fled across the border to the town of Bunj, in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state. Dr. Atar packed up the hospital in four cars and a tractor and took 15 staff with him. All but Faruk, who, in the chaos of departure, was arrested by Sudanese troops and accused of giving medical treatment to rebel soldiers.

“After six months, the military released Faruk and he came straight to Bunj,” said Dr. Atar. “These people know me better than anybody. All my nurses here, I train them multi-purpose. They have to have every skill. Faruk is a really good scrub nurse.”

Dr. Atar is the chief surgeon and medical director at Bunj Hospital, also known as Maban Hospital, a 120-bed facility with two operating theatres. The hospital, more than 600 kilometres from the capital, Juba, is the only functioning surgical facility in Upper Nile and now includes a neonatal section and a 20-bed tuberculosis ward.

South Sudan. Surgeon providing life-line to 200,000 refugees named as UNHCR's 2018 Nansen Refugee Award winner
Sedik Faruq in the operating theatre at Bunj Hospital, Maban County, South Sudan.

Open 24 hours a day, it serves a population of more than 200,000. Dr. Atar is so well known across South Sudan that many just refer to it as “Dr. Atar’s Hospital,” and patients will travel days to be under his care. The surgical team of four doctors carries out 58 operations a week on average. Dr. Atar has trained 32 nurses.

At the Maban Hospital, the surgical staff acts as an extended family, with Dr. Atar as the patriarch. The nurses joke that he can be a dictator. Everyone worries that he works too hard.

“We tell him to eat lunch and he says he won’t. He just wants to work.”

“He is very stubborn,” says Faruk. “We tell him to eat lunch and he says he won’t. He just wants to work. If he is sick he just insists he is OK. But then when he does two or three surgeries he feels he has achieved something and he is happy and he tells us stories.”

Faruk’s life mirrors the complexity of the region. He is a refugee in South Sudan. His wife is also a refugee but from another ethnic group at war with Faruk’s. His parents live in Blue Nile. His brother is a rebel soldier in Blue Nile fighting for independence. Faruk is a Muslim. Dr. Atar is a Christian. For Faruk, it is actions that count. The hospital has to be a neutral ground.

“Muslims and Christians are the same,” says Faruk. “There is only one God. Dr. Atar says we are here to help patients and we can never say no. People here respect him. Even the soldiers when they come to the compound, they know they cannot enter with their guns.”

The staff say Dr. Atar sometimes gets angry and can be stubborn. However, his unflagging energy and work ethic are the glue that keeps the staff together.

“On Sunday, if he is not on duty, he will rest but otherwise he won’t even sit,” says Faruk. “The hospital is his baby.”