After working in war-torn Iraq, Kate Cowhig set up a recruitment firm to give other nurses opportunities to work abroad.
Nursing Saddam Hussain’s uncle was a huge moment for young Irish critical care nurse Kate Cowhig, who worked in Iraq in the 1980s.
“He was a huge VIP but I learnt that everyone is human and you nurse them the same way,” she says.
Her time in Iraq was one of the highlights of Ms Cowhig’s career.
“Nursing is a wonderful passport to travel,” she says.
Ms Cowhig started her career in the 1970s in learning disabilities and general nursing, and went to Baghdad in Iraq in 1983.
“It was during the Iraq-Iran war, so we saw war trauma victims and terrible injuries. But those were my happiest days in nursing,” she says.
“The people had so little but were so grateful for what we gave them and would share whatever they had with us. Patients were appreciative and respected us.”
It wasn’t just the patients who made it a “wonderful experience”. The exposure to skilled doctors and excellent nurses heightened Ms Cowhig’s expertise.
“Baghdad University trained some of the best doctors and nurses in the world so I was learning all the time. It opened my eyes to other healthcare systems, not just in the Middle East but also in other countries because there were healthcare professionals from all over the world - Sweden, Norway, South Africa - as well as Iraq.
Ms Cowhig learnt only basic Arabic, such as how to tell a patient to open their eyes and that their operation was over. But she picked up far greater knowledge, she adds. “It set me up for the rest of my career,” she says.
“I suppose I went because I loved to travel, and the tax-free money and six to eight weeks’ leave was a bonus too. It was a great lifestyle. I played tennis every morning, albeit in 30° heat, and I was always planning a trip - to Jordan, the Far East or African countries.”
“I remember nursing this one fantastic patient, who survived the hospital’s first renal transplant. He was a student activist and so sick, but so positive.
“One time, he called down the director of nursing and his consultant - and I wondered what he was about to say, when he asked them: ‘Would it be OK if I marry Nurse Kate, please?’ “
She may not have accepted the proposal but, upon returning to her native Dublin, she continued to be enthralled with the Middle East, and set up Kate Cowhig International Healthcare Recruitment in 1990.
“Nurses will always get work, and UK nurses have an advantage over other European countries because English is the language used in the Middle East,” she says. “I want to give other nurses the fabulous opportunity I had.”
Despite the benefits, Ms Cowhig insists on screening candidates to ensure they are packing up for the right reasons, and to make sure they are choosing the right candidates for the right jobs and, most importantly, the patients.
“We have to get the recruitment right for patients,” she says. “That is what nurses are there for.”
So, although clinical skills are scrutinised, people are also screened over their motivations and personalities by a senior nurse.
“You need to check people aren’t just running away from problems here, but are keen to travel, and will have the stamina for being away from home and won’t get homesick,” she says.
“And they have to respect Muslim culture - women won’t be able to drive a car, have to wear a hijab, can’t drink alcohol and won’t be able to have a boyfriend stay. If you are not prepared for that, it won’t work.”
But for the over 15,000 nurses Ms Cowhig has placed successfully since 1990, the adaptation to a new culture was worth it.
“Nurses are good listeners. They have empathy and fabulous positive energy. That means nurses will always blossom,” she says. “And I think we should share our knowledge and experience with our colleagues around the world.”