Florence Nightingale set the standard for modern nursing.  Her approach that “the first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm”, also inspired Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah Hospital.

But for people like US-born Julie Benbenishty, Nurse Coordinator of Hadassah Hospital’s Trauma Unit and co-founder of Nurses in the Middle East (NME), there is another person whose example is equally inspirational.

Indira Ghandi, the first woman to become prime minister of India, famously declared, “You can’t shake hands with a clinched fist.”

That observation is prominent on NME’s website.  At first glance it seems odd to feature a negative when talking about healthcare, but this is precisely what drove Ms Benbenishty and her co-founder, Na’ila Hayek, an Arab-Israeli nurse who heads Hadassah’s Intensive Care Units, to establish NME in 2012.

The idea for an organisation that advocates for healthier communities through care, compassion and understanding began after Ms Benbenishty expressed concerned when patients from the West Bank and Gaza left hospital without access to ongoing care.

This isn’t a small number, either.  Ms Benbenishty believes that about thirty percent of Hadassah’s patients come from the West Bank and Gaza.

“The minute they returned home there was no one I could speak to about their follow-up care,” she said.

The turning point was a case involving a Palestinian truck driver who was heading home after spending three months at Hadassah for severe injuries.  These included a crushed pelvis, abdominal haemorrhage, and the amputation of his left foot.

“He needed to have rehabilitation therapy closer to his home and my fellow nurses and I wanted to make sure that his injuries would receive proper care,” she said.

“Despite reaching out to doctors and NGOs, I couldn’t find a single nurse to whom I could send the patient’s information. I felt awful that despite the relatively short distance of 30 kilometres, I didn’t know one nurse there.”

Ms Benbenishty said the mission of NME is to connect nurses to each other, regardless of political, ethnic, or religious identity and, together, promote regional health through outreach, education and research.

“I don’t define being a nurse as just doing my shift,” says Ms Benbenishty. “Being a nurse means worrying about healing in the broader sense and making a better world for our children.

“We stand together to advocate for healthier communities despite facing the threat of harm to our communities, our families, and ourselves.” 

NME’s board is made up of nurses from both East and West Jerusalem.  It reaches out to all nurses in the Middle East to join in the fight for tolerance and respect.

Its annual conference, now held in Jordan, attracts Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinian Christians and Moslems, and nurses from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and the US.

 “Nurses are the hands-on care givers, and nursing is at the centre of our conversations. We are successful in building lines of communications and launching joint projects. For example, we have done research on childhood injuries and nurse burnout. We have developed protocols for treating mass casualties. As Middle Eastern nurses we are all dealing with traditional societies and have many of the same challenges. As nurses we have a lot in common.”