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'I have a boxing bag in my basement, I punch it regularly' - Irish nurse in Yemen trying to cope with pandemic in humanitarian crisis


Resilience: Nurse Avril Patterson said she feels privileged to work in Yemen

Resilience: Nurse Avril Patterson said she feels privileged to work in Yemen

Resilience: Nurse Avril Patterson said she feels privileged to work in Yemen

Avril Patterson has witnessed first-hand some unimaginable horrors in conflict zones, but when asked how she manages to keep her mental health strong, the response from the Bangor, Co Down-born nurse, who is currently in Yemen, is unexpected.

"In truth, I know it's very cool to do things like yoga and mindfulness, but honestly, I have a boxing bag in my basement and that's what I do, I punch it regularly," she told the Irish Independent.

"We can't go out, we can't go running around or anything like that, so we're a bit confined to quarters unless we're out in the field. So basically I go down to the basement, I get my gloves on and I punch the bag... I call it my therapist."

As the health coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), she is currently based in the capital of Sana'a, with the country facing into a severe humanitarian crisis. She was previously stationed in Syria.

Yemen has been beset by violence since 2014, when Houthi rebels overran much of the country. Tens of thousands of Yemenis have been killed in the conflict, while more than three million have been left homeless and living in extreme poverty.

For the past couple of months, flash floods and torrential rain have hit a country which had already been dealing with outbreaks of cholera, malaria and dengue fever.

"So many people have lost their lives and stagnant water has created an already nightmare situation on top of all the layers of failing infrastructure, so it's massively challenging in Yemen and just when you think it can't get any worse, it does," said Ms Patterson.

In April, Covid hit. Things were further complicated by the fact a high fever could be a symptom of any of the other diseases that are rife. However, Yemen didn't have the first-world luxury of being able to go into lockdown.

"If they don't go out, they don't eat. They live hand-to-mouth, so whatever they earn that day is what they spend on food that night," said Ms Patterson.

"And how can you tell people to wash their hands when they don't have any clean water, they don't have any soap? Or telling people to socially distance when they're crowded into houses or into tents in displaced areas?

"In Yemen, they're faced with many layers of problems. They've been in this conflict now for five-and-a-half years. Airstrikes are still ongoing, but add to that the extreme poverty faced by 80pc of the population. About 24 million people are in need of help and in terms of health, 19.7m people lack access to basic health care.

"The conflict has wrought on them significant poverty which impacts absolutely every area of their lives. They've been living with this for years now and there's been displacement at every turn."

Speaking ahead of World Humanitarian Day today as part of the #RealLifeHeroes campaign, she refuted any suggestion her work is heroic.

"Some people have the impression that I'm brave, but I don't feel brave," she said.

"I feel very privileged to do what I do. I see things: the good, the bad and the ugly, and I see the absolute best as well as the absolute worst. I see incredible resilience among people who are just going through unimaginably difficult situations.

"It's our humanity that makes us human, there's a clue right there in the word. And I hope that people in their current situations can spare a thought for those that are really in trouble."

Irish Independent

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