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Covid-19 frontline warrior: Nurse embraces trans identity

  • Published at 02:12 pm July 16th, 2020
Ho Chi Minh Islam wants to pursue higher education in order to help carve out a space for transgender people in Bangladesh Facebook

After 14 days in quarantine, the resolute nurse was eager to get back into the fray

It had barely been a year since Ho Chi Minh Islam started working as a nurse at one of the top hospitals in the city. When a crisis broke out, the 26-year-old rookie nurse braced against a tide of patients quickly filling up beds, and doctors scrambling to treat them.

On March 12, a fortnight before the nation went into lockdown, a patient’s condition at Square Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) suddenly deteriorated, setting alarm bells ringing. Seeing nobody around, Ho Chi Minh lifted the patient and carried him to the emergency room.

Three days later, the hospital authorities revealed that the patient had tested positive for Covid-19. Ho Chi Minh took the test as well, which came back positive. After 14 days in quarantine, the resolute nurse was eager to get back into the fray.

Now, Ho Chi Minh Islam staffs the Covid-19 unit at the hospital.

Regardless of her brief experience, she gets up at 6am daily, and arrives at work by 8am. The first respite in the day comes at 2pm, as the flurry of activity prevents any breaks.

Clad from head to toe in personal protection equipment (PPE), suffering in the sweltering heat that causes red sores all over the body, Ho Chi Minh, like all other frontline workers against the coronavirus, accepts the pain as part of her mission to save lives.

The hospital introduced a policy for the coronavirus unit to have rotating shifts for 14 days a month, followed by 14 days in quarantine.

Up until that day, Ho Chi Minh had been known as a man to the staff and patients. But something that day flipped a switch inside her. She went and told the authorities that even though she was born in the body of a man, she was a woman through and through.

She was gripped by fear of what the consequences might bring, but the hospital authorities embraced her for the tough-as-grits nurse she was and assigned her to the unit.

When the Bangladesh Nursing and Midwifery Council was asked about how many transgender nurses there were, they said none had been registered as transgender, but noting that two female nurses had informed them that they would like to be identified as males.

Ho Chi Minh said: “I realized I was a girl when I was in second grade. I liked a boy, but I had been raised as a boy even though I felt like a girl, and these complex feelings caused me grief for years on end.

“My father was a guard at an NGO in Bogra. The NGO chief, an African man, gave me the name, Ho Chi Minh, upon my birth. The male name did not indicate my identity as a male or female. But my father knew how I felt, and he told me to focus on my studies. But as I grew up, I suffered bullying from classmates, teachers and all kinds of authority figures.”

In the ninth grade, she discovered a love for books and began reading copiously. The development of her reading skills has helped her become an eloquent and erudite speaker, often surprising people.

“The more I read, the more I wanted to establish my identity as an individual. I began studying nursing at TMSS Medical College in 2014 and then practised at Rafatullah Community Hospital in Bogra under the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Rajshahi.

“My father died, leaving my mother all by herself. I worked at menial jobs one after another so I could take care of household expenses and pay my tuition fees as well. After obtaining my nursing qualifications, I joined Square Hospital last year as a male nurse. Everyone thought I was a man. Only I knew the truth,” said the nurse.

Ho Chi Minh wants to pursue higher education in order to help carve out space for transgender people in Bangladesh, particularly for trans men.

With a note of determination in her voice, Ho Chi Minh said: “I have grown as a trans, feminist, gender and sexual rights activist, as a human rights defender and as a nurse. Right now, I am putting my life on the line to save as many lives as possible.”

As she narrated her experience up to this point to another patient, Ho Chi Minh was asked: “What should I call you, brother or sister?”

Ho Chi Minh gazed into the distance as she replied: “Whatever makes you comfortable.”

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