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Friday, April 4

Ensign Julia Reintjes, talks with a wounded soldier as he is admitted for medical treatment aboard the USNS Comfort in the Persian Gulf. The USNS Comfort will treat wounded U.S. and coalition soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi civilians and Iraqi freedom fighters. (Andrew Campbell/Nursing Spectrum)

Treating Iraqi prisoners can take emotional toll

By Janet Boivin | The Nursing Spectrum

Treating Iraqi prisoners can take emotional toll

ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT - Lt. Cmdr. Mary Brantley, RN, MSN, assistant division officer of the ICU, was taken aback when she realized one of her first patients wounded in the opening hours of the war was not an American or coalition soldier. Instead, her patient was an Iraqi soldier - an enemy prisoner of war.

"I was relieved he wasn't a wounded American,'' says Brantley, who is from Virginia. "And then I said to myself, `I can handle this.'''

Because her patient wasn't American, Brantley found it easier to put aside her emotions and provide the nursing care for which she was trained. Under the Geneva Convention, enemy soldiers wounded in battle must receive medical treatment.

But for some nurses on the Navy's hospital ship, caring for the enemy evokes unsettling emotions. Indeed, not only were Iraqis some of the first combat casualties treated on the Comfort, but at times they were the majority of the wounded. Besides Iraqi soldiers, the Comfort is also treating Iraqi civilians and freedom fighters.

Lt. David Stewart, from Kalamazoo, Mich., says he provides the same level of care to Iraqi prisoners as to American service members; but he struggles with his feelings after learning from the media that American prisoners of war are being mistreated.

"I didn't anticipate caring for EPWs,'' he says. ``We're supposed to treat them with respect.''

Lt. Pat Riley, an operating room nurse originally from upstate New York, has similar feelings about caring for the enemy. ``I was a Navy SEAL for most of my military career, so I can relate to what our guys are going through in Iraq. I know these Iraqi patients need care, so I become more focused on what I need to do.''

Caring for Iraqi prisoners didn't phase Ensign Julia Reintjes, a staff nurse in casualty receiving. "It hasn't been an issue for me,'' she says. "But it is disturbing to think our guys aren't being taken care of as well.''

However, Reintjes says other people in casualty receiving felt conflicted about treating prisoners, so one of the Comfort's two psychiatrists met with the staff. "We talked about what we had seen and what people were saying,'' says Reintjes.

OR nurse Lt. Cmdr. Judy Cowan thought she might be bitter toward Iraqi prisoners, but she found that wasn't how she felt. "I have a heart for the Iraqis and what they have been through,'' she says.

Adding to whatever feelings nurses may have about Iraqi prisoners is the frustration of the language barrier. "We have some words and phrases in their language,'' says Cmdr. Regina Barbour, who received Iraqi prisoners in her medical/surgical unit. One day in the operating room, two translators were so busy that some nurses needed to communicate with signs, body language, or any means they could. "It's a helpless feeling when you can't understand your patients,'' says Riley.

Nurses say for the most part the Iraqi prisoners are cooperative and seem to appreciate the care they're receiving. Brantley noticed that an Iraqi prisoner's pulse, heart rate and blood pressure decreased after treatment.

"There was a look of peace on his face,'' she says.


Janet Boivin, RN, editorial director for Nursing Spectrum's Greater Chicago/Tri-State division, was aboard the USNS Comfort March 21-25.