Early on during the Covid-19 pandemic, Esraa Al Agha responded to a call for volunteers to help out at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah. As a medical student, she thought it would be a valuable experience in preparing for her future career. In fact, it gave her what she describes as the most rewarding time of her life.
The 22-year-old from Ajman was assigned the task of liaising between patients’ families and the medical staff caring for victims of the virus. Working exhausting 12-hour shifts was not only physically taxing but emotionally draining.
“Imagine calling a father to tell him that his seven-year-old daughter was infected with Covid-19 and a special team were on the way to take her into quarantine,” she says. “The girl had symptoms and her family had brought her in for testing. When she tested positive, it was my role to make that phone call. I struggled to control myself when he burst into tears, knowing that his only daughter was in danger and that he couldn’t be with her.
“I did my best to stay calm and reassure him that she was in the best hands. For 14 days, the girl, who has asthma, battled the virus. I kept in touch with her parents, giving them updates every day and setting up Zoom calls for them to talk. Once the girl recovered and tested negative, I was excited to call the father again to ask him to come and collect his daughter. The experience was the most unforgettable of my time as a volunteer during the pandemic.”
From her initial assignments at Ajman Preventative Medicine Centre and Al Qassimi Hospital, Esraa’s role expanded to cover numerous medical facilities all around the UAE, where she counselled distraught relatives who could not visit their loved ones in hospital.
“It was emotionally difficult. There were so many stories of pain, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. “The hours were long and the number of cases immense. We were on our feet for the whole day, often without a break.”
The work also meant Esraa was regularly exposed to people who were infected with Covid-19. It made her fearful of going home to see her mother, who has cancer. She restricted herself to weekly visits only on Fridays and only after she had had a negative test result. Thankfullly, she never contracted the virus.
“My mother is my true inspiration,” says Esraa, who has Jordanian nationality but was born in the UAE. “When we spoke, she admitted she missed me but always encouraged me to get back to work.”
Before Covid, Esraa’s time was taken up with her studies at Dubai Medical College and giving private math lessons in the evenings to earn extra money for the family. As a volunteer, she took extra training in swabbing and testing and was promoted to team leader at the field hospital set up in Sharjah’s Expo Centre. Last April, she also volunteered to help out at a quarantine hotel and spent almost six weeks in round-the-clock contact with infected patients.
Though she has witnessed much suffering and pain, she has also seen the power of positivity. Nothing beats passing on the news of a loved one’s recovery, she says.
Her two brothers have been inspired to also become volunteers at Al Qassimi Hospital.
Esraa’s selfless commitment has been recognized by the Frontline Heroes Office, which was established in July 2020 under the chairmanship of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, to raise awareness of the key role played by frontline workers and to address their needs – in essence to care for the carers.
Meanwhile, Esraa’s work continues with the vaccination campaign. Why does she do it? Her motivation is simple, she says.
“I was born in the UAE and I have lived all my life here. All my efforts are my way of giving back to this country. “
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.