Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
April 17, 2020
Najibeh Gholami was already doing a medical internship at Mashhad’s Imam Reza Hospital in February when the coronavirus pandemic reached that home of one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines.
An Afghan physician-in-training in her mid-20s, she quickly volunteered to help tend to COVID-19 patients in that northeastern Iranian city.
Thousands there have been infected with the virus, many of them fatally, making it one of the most beleaguered places in the region’s hardest-hit country.
“I’m doing my duty,” Gholami, who came to Iran on a scholarship and studied emergency medicine, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan in late March.
The deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged from central China is believed to have entered Iran through the city of Qom in February before waylaying ill-prepared hospitals and officials who spent weeks denying or downplaying the outbreak.
The related, pneumonia-like illness, COVID-19, has now killed nearly 5,000 Iranians and around 78,000 more, according to official figures, which even officials themselves appear to acknowledge are vastly underreported.
Despite tight censorship of social and other media, scenes have been shared of overwhelmed and underprotected medical staff working day and night amid reports of widespread shortages and high infection rates among doctors and nurses.
Lives On The Line
Just in the past few weeks, around 50 doctors and nurses have died in Iran after contracting COVID-19.
Yet, Gholami said, she and her colleagues have overcome their fear of infection in order to do their jobs as best they can.
“This is the path I’ve chosen, and I remain committed to the oath I took to serve the sick and help save their lives,” she said.
“There is fear, of course, but my colleagues have put their lives on the line and they are serving people tirelessly.”
Gholami said the happiness and relief of the families and relatives of patients who have recovered from the deadly coronavirus are among her best memories.
Speaking late last month, she said that, while dozens of new COVID-19 patients were being admitted each day, that number was a fraction of the figure just weeks before.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 3 million Afghans are residing in Iran, including refugees and migrant workers, where some have complained of discrimination. Amid the worsening of the coronavirus outbreak in the Islamic republic, thousands have reportedly crossed the border and returned home.
Gholami, who is now on staff at Imam Reza Hospital, said many Afghans have been treated there and recovered.
“Medicine doesn’t [differentiate],” she told RFE/RL. “We ask our patients about their problems and we try to help them. It doesn’t matter where patients are from; if they need to be hospitalized, they will receive the care they need.”
Gholami said she hoped to one day use her experience to help those in need in her own country, Afghanistan, where only around 700 coronavirus infections have been reported.
“The experience I’ve earned here working with top specialists has been very important to me.”
Written by Golnaz Esfandiari based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nusrat Parsa.
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.