A shared sense of community with 'NHS does Ramadan'
With each health worker having their own story to share and trauma to release, Sultana, a 30-year-old hospital doctor decided to start a project called NHS does Ramadan to create a shared sense of community at a time of extreme pressure and isolation.
"When the pandemic first happened, our fight or flight mechanism was triggered and it somehow gave us the ability to soldier through 12 hour shifts in which we saw scenes that traumatised us," she told The New Arab.
NHS workers didn't have time to cope with the emotional toll of the pandemic, Sultana explained, recalling times in which she had to be brutally honest with 40-year-old patients when they asked her if they would survive before being put on a ventilator.
"We had conversations we never thought we'd have and then we had to go to isolate away from our families and do it all over again. Personally, I was scared of giving any potential virus to my mum, so I had to stay in a hotel for a while," she said.
|When the pandemic first happened, our fight or flight mechanism was triggered and it somehow gave us the ability to soldier through 12 hour shifts in which we saw scenes that traumatised us|
Once Ramadan came, a time that is traditionally filled with family and community, health workers had the added burden of observing the holy month alone. This is when Sultana came up with her NHS does Ramadan page.
"It started out as a TikTok in which Muslim health workers did the famous Don't Rush challenge, which went viral. I also had a WhatsApp support group for Muslim health workers during Ramadan. But as both garnered attention, I wanted to create something more meaningful, so I made an Instagram account where health workers can submit their stories of working during the pandemic in the holy month," Sultana said.
So far, the page has over 130 posts with workers submitting stories of finding solace in little things, such as seeing another Muslim on their ward and feeling solidarity. It is also used as a page for people to express their rawest feelings and open up about the effect the pandemic has had on their mental health.
For Sultana, NHS does Ramadan is only an extension of the solidarity shown within Muslim health workers. She described nights of Muslims, from porters to top surgeons breaking their fast together in one room, feeling a sense of relief from working tirelessly during the pandemic and taking a break from the loneliness that comes with social distancing – even if it's only for a few minutes.
However, the page isn't only for Muslims who observe Ramadan.
"I know many who couldn't fast last year. The work is intense and staff need to be at their top shape to deal with the pandemic. PPE is very sticky and it's almost impossible to not get dehydrated when wearing it for hours on end," Sultana said.
Even for those who chose to abstain from fasting for the sake of their duty to save lives, the Ramadan atmosphere still served as a reminder of communal solidarity – something NHS does Ramadan aims to nurture.
Turning to God in times of hardship
Another aim of the page is to remind health workers of their mercy of their creator during such testing times.
"One prayer I kept hearing is inna lillah w inna illahi raji'oon (to God we belong and to God we shall return) and this is something that we say when someone dies. But to me, hearing it also reminded me that there is something bigger than ourselves watching us," Sultana explained.
Across the wards she sees Muslims with different relationships with God and their faith.
"I hate the term 'practicing Muslim'. What does that even mean? Everyone has their own relationship with their creator," she said, adding that people of all spectrums leaned on their own faith, and the faith of others.
"At a time in which nothing is explainable, especially at the start of the pandemic, we needed something equally unexplainable and intangible to counteract the fear," Sultana said, speaking of the concept of faith.
Faith and community – two focal points of Ramadan – didn't only help workers, the spirit even trickled to patients.
"One particularly difficult moment for me was when I saw an Arab male patient in his 60s who looked like my dad. I decided to speak to him in Arabic to comfort him and I had to fight back tears because of how emotional the discussion made me," she said.
Sultana witnessed moving moments of interfaith connection. "I have a Sikh colleague who always greets Muslim patients with as-salamu alaikum (a greeting used between Muslims) and he inspired me to do the same. Now when I see a Sikh patient, I greet them with sat sri akal, or greet a Hindu patient with namaste," she explained.
|She described nights of Muslims, from porters to top surgeons breaking their fast together in one room, feeling a sense of relief from working tirelessly during the pandemic and taking a break from the loneliness that comes with social distancing – even if it's only for a few minutes|
Last year, the page grew rapidly as the British public treated health workers as heroes. A large influx of health workers were willing to submit their stories to a very wide and audience.
"Because of what I thought may be a lack of interest this year, I almost didn't do NHS does Ramadan, but I had people approach me to ask me about it" – this is when Sultana remembered the mission was to foster community and solidarity and decided to go along with her project for the second year in a row.
This year, Sultana is using her project to raise awareness for workers in the health service who are not doctors and nurses.
"The cleaners and porters are just as important and just as traumatised. Some of whom don't know enough English to be able to talk about it properly," she explained.
"If doctors and nurses watch someone die, the porters are the ones who have to transport the bodies."
She found that as the dust settled and workers went through two waves, contributions were a lot deeper than this year's one. Rather than sharing from an immediate space of coping as the traumatic experience unfolds, people were sharing from the space of their processed thoughts, feelings and trauma.
Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab and a spiritual lifestyle blogger.