'I'm Proud Of Myself': Refugee Nurse On The Frontlines Of COVID-19

It was just four months — and a lifetime — ago that 43-year-old Menuka Dhungana graduated with her nursing degree in Columbus, Ohio. Her timing to join the health care industry could not have been more needed.

In Ohio, there are over 2,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and at least 65 deaths. Those numbers are expected to rise. Earlier this week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced that the National Guard will build additional facilities in order to accommodate the predicted increase of patients. At this rate, Ohio hospitals will need to triple their capacity in order to keep up with the rise of even more COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.

Dhungana is one of the thousands of health care workers on the frontlines battling the outbreak. A former Bhutanese-Nepali refugee who received asylum in America in 2009, Dhungana knows firsthand what it’s like to be on the frontlines of a crisis. HuffPost interviewed Dhungana to discuss her work as a first responder in health care and the path that got her there. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.  

Tackling The Coronavirus Outbreak In Ohio

“I enjoy my job as a registered nurse. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, it’s scary for all of us as we worry about its transmission and what it does to the patient.”

Dhungana said her hospital has been strict on patient care for COVID-19 patients and confining them to certain floors. She said the situation so far has been manageable but she’s concerned about the predicted influx.

“We are just thinking about the future. We don’t know what’s going to happen but so far we are good,” said Dhungana.

Joining The Frontlines Of American Health Care

In February 2009, Dhungana and her husband were granted asylum to the United States. She worked within the Columbia K-12 public school system for three years when she realized she wanted to go into the health care industry. She hasn’t looked back since, grateful for the opportunities she gets to connect with her patients.

“Sometimes they cry and I cry with them. Sometimes they make you laugh. So I do get quite emotional with my patients,” she said.

Dhungana knows her struggles fleeing Bhutan to Nepal to the U.S. gave her the work ethic she needs to take on her duties as a health care professional. It’s a common factor among many refugees and immigrants, she said.

“Most of the immigrants are already very much used to working hard. No matter what country they came from. Everyone has their own story to tell,” she said.

She said she hopes more people will recognize the contributions refugees like herself make to society as they fight through misconceptions that refugees “are not capable of doing good things” or that they solely rely on the government for assistance.

“Refugees are hardworking people and they are dedicated to what they want to do,” she added. “They are really appreciative of being here in America, and getting the opportunity to grow and show their own good qualities.” 

Growing Up

One of Dhungana’s most vivid memories is the day she fled Bhutan to Nepal. During the 1990s, Bhutan, a South Asian country located in the Eastern Himalayas, expelled much of the country’s Nepali-speaking ethnic Lhotshampa population, driving refugees to nearby Nepal.

After her father was killed in the conflict, Dhungana, who was just 12 years old at the time, alongside her mother, grandparents and five siblings, packed into a truck and paid a driver to take them to Nepal. It was not safe for them in Bhutan.

“So we loaded a few bags of rice and other edible things and then drove for hours and hours,” said Dhungana.

Once in Nepal, Dhungana and her siblings enrolled in school but also worked to provide for her mother and grandparents. When they first arrived, the family resided in a refugee camp. Dhungana and her siblings all worked, scraping together resources to provide for one another.

She also allotted a small fund for herself. She wanted to leave the camp and was determined to work for a better future. Soon, she had enough saved to go to college in India in 1998 and then returned to Nepal in 2001 and obtained her master’s degree in accounting. Upon her return to Nepal, she worked as an assistant teacher at a local school to make ends meet and support her family. 

Everything she did, she said, was “to survive.”

One Goal: Battling COVID-19

Dhungana walks into the hospital every day with her head held up high, she said. Despite her tumultuous past, she always kept her eyes on the future. It’s what motivated her to obtain an education in India, Nepal and then the U.S. It’s also what she’s thinking about while battling the coronavirus outbreak at work.

“I’m proud of myself and all the other nurses and doctors,” said Dhungana. “I don’t feel any different being a refugee and compared to somebody who was born in this nation. Every one of us is the same when it comes to taking care of patients.”

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus

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