Apart from the beauty of the island of Leros, Martyn and I return year after year because of the friends we have made there. We have known Takis Varnas and his family the longest. They have all helped me one way and another with my writing, including an hilarious, wine fuelled evening deciding which was the worst Greek swear word.
The consensus opinion is included in Terrible With Raisins. Jigsaw Island, to be published this month, is somewhat different in tone; it still includes the island of Symi but the main action takes place on Leros. As it is set in 2016, it would have been wrong not to include the desperate plight of refugees arriving in the islands.
As a nurse, in addition to caring for the needs of fellow Lerians, Takis is on the front line, caring for the physical and emotional wellbeing of people desperate enough to make the dangerous crossing from Turkey, fleeing from war and deprivation.
He’s been kind enough to take time out of his frantically busy schedule to tell me about his professional life. It is a long interview, so this is the first of two posts.
Takis with a very new patient
Takis in his own words:
‘I lived in Sydney, Australia for two years (1995-1997) and worked there as a nursing assistant in a Greek nursing home. The incentive to train and pursue my nursing profession was given to me by the choice to work in the mental health and reintegration programs that have operated since 1991 at Leros Psychiatric Hospital. I chose to do this job for a certain period of time (2 years) and for purely livelihood reasons but in the course of my work I discovered how interesting and how special the profession of a nurse is.
The specific and the biggest challenge that a healthcare professional can face on a Greek island with chronically limited hospital facilities and medical equipment is that residents are often unable to access more sophisticated care on Rhodes or the mainland, especially during the winter, due to bad weather conditions.
Under such difficult circumstances, a healthcare professional is frequently called to deal with emergencies and very serious situations that his medical team has to manage and stabilise immediately until the case be referred to a larger hospital with an intensive care unit. Such situations may be for example: multi-complex needs, a car accident or the diagnosis of a rare medical condition that requires immediate and specialised care in hospital.
The specific challenge in these cases is that healthcare professionals have to work with inadequate medical equipment compared to that available in larger hospitals on the mainland.
It is widely accepted, even by European institutions and the IMF who imposed the austerity measures implemented in Greece from 2010 to the present, that they have been (and still are) some of the most severe and disabling financial strictures in world history.
This intense austerity imposed so abruptly on the Greek people found them unprepared; it had a profoundly negative impact on the public healthcare system. Officials were forced to incur huge spending cuts (more than 50%) on healthcare facilities and to the number of healthcare professionals, mainly nurses and medical staff.
Takis & colleague – foot operation
In public hospitals, for every ten retirements there was one recruitment. This rate is now 5 to 1. The result of all this is a tremendous workload for healthcare personnel at public hospitals as health problems faced by the Greeks escalate due to the humanitarian crisis; the number of hospital cases has increased dramatically, mainly in the islands of the eastern Aegean that host immigrants and refugees coming in from Asia and Africa.
The island of Leros, where I live permanently with my family, is one of the 5 islands in the eastern Aegean where there are facilities for refugee accommodation and identification. so-called ‘hot spots’. Since 2015 until today, due to the search for the best possible living conditions, many thousands of refugees (mainly from Muslim countries) arrive at Leros where they are hosted at the hot spot. Having fled war in their home countries, the aim of the refugees is to reach the larger, more developed European countries for reunion with their families and for a better, safer life.
It is no surprise that, coming from conflict zones, such groups of people suffer mainly psychological but also physical injuries that require specialised medical care. As a nurse working at Leros Hospital, I had to be de facto, indeed, necessarily involved with every aspect of the medical care of these people.
As a health professional and as a human being, I feel very proud of the fact that the people of Leros, in their overwhelming majority, have come to terms with this humanitarian crisis by managing a terribly disproportionate burden with composure and compassion and trying, under difficult conditions, to live alongside people from foreign countries who have completely different cultures and different perceptions on the simple everyday issues of living, family, religion etc.
From my point of view, this is due to the fact that since the mid-50s, Leros has hosted vulnerable groups, such as mentally ill people from around Greece and also political prisoners of the 1967-1973 dictatorship in the facilities Leros inherited from World War II as an Italian navy base. This fact has somehow ‘trained’ the inhabitants of Leros to handle such situations.
Of course, however, we must emphasise that the current refugee and immigrant crisis is becoming increasingly difficult for both permanent residents and those in refugee accommodation facilities on the island.’
Takis talks about working with NGOs, the problems faced by specific refugee patients and innovations made into healthcare on Leros.