x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE health system's early days are a far cry from today

"The citizens had very little understanding of what caused disease and about medical treatment."

ABU DHABI // Former nurse Nancy Brook will never forget the woman in labour at Oasis Hospital who was dragged away by her family when they refused to allow doctors to perform a caesarean section.

It was the 1970s, the UAE health system was in its infancy and its citizens were still new to the advantages of modern medicine.

"We knew this meant death for both mother and infant," said Ms Brook, who came from Canada to Oasis, one of the UAE's first medical establishments, in 1970.

"But the citizens had very little understanding of what caused disease and about medical treatment. Labour was conducted without monitors - just careful listening to the heartbeat and 'feeling' and timing the contractions. To them, surgery meant the last resort and death."

Women gave birth at home, using salt to disinfect wounds, said Ms Brook. This often caused scarring and problems in future pregnancies, contributing to a high infant and maternal mortality rate.

Educating residents about the difference it made to get medical help was one of the first challenges that faced those who were instrumental in building the UAE health system, she said.

Once the benefits were established, however, the Oasis Hospital in Al Ain almost struggled with demand.

Mothers began arriving on the doorstep with children suffering from measles and whooping cough. Malaria was endemic, as were parasites.

Despite limited facilities, Oasis never refused a patient.

"Whenever there was emergency surgery we all helped - scrubbing, circulating, getting family members or staff to give blood and then caring for the patient following surgery," said Ms Brook. "It was very much teamwork because we had no options to send the patients elsewhere, so we did the best we could."

Ms Brook, 70, who is back living in Canada, said she believed the UAE health system has made great strides and credits the Government for making it a top priority.

"Health care has improved amazingly quickly," she said. "The Government obviously has given immense resources to providing excellent health care to the citizens.

"People didn't have to travel so far to get their needed care. Schools started teaching good health habits to the children, who often passed it on to the parents.

"As people started living longer, 'new' diseases started popping up, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity.

"This has lead to more preventative treatment and teaching as well as treating the diseases.

"As medical care developed, the patients had higher expectations of the healthcare workers."

jbell@thenational.ae