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Nurses played vital role in helping Nazi camp survivors

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Nurses have a vital role to play in nourishing people and helping them to recover their dignity during a major crisis, as was the case when Bergen-Belsen was liberated in 1945 at the end of World War II.

This is the major discovery of a historical research paper in the October issue of the Journal of Clinical Nursing, and one of the author says should be recognised today as the impact of the current economic crisis continues.

“Valuable lessons can be learnt about the role of nurses from history and Bergen-Belsen demonstrates that the role of nurses in emergency feeding can be essential for patient care and, in some cases, even more vital for patient survival than medical care,” said Dr Jane Brooks, from the UK Centre for the History of Nursing and Midwifery. The centre is part of the University of Manchester’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work.

Belsen inmates - including Anne Frank and her sister - died not from gas chambers like the people in death camps such as Auschwitz, but rather from starvation, illness and despair.

What is even more tragic is that after liberation, efforts to feed starving inmates led to another 2,000 deaths as they were not able to handle the rich diet offered.

While more appropriate diets were ordered, they took too long to reach the camp. The limited medical staff couldn’t cope with the hands-on supervision required by the gastric and nasal tubes. In fact, shortly after liberation, it was clear that nursing skills were needed more than medical skills, putting into serious question the command to deploy medical students over nurses.

For each nurse sent to help with liberation, there were 150 patients, many speaking languages the nurses didn’t understand. There were other enormous challenges as many inmates horded food for fear of hunger, resulted in fighting, risks of vermin infestations and infections.

“The range of the problems that the nursing sisters were required to overcome to ensure adequate feeding of their patients was unprecedented,” Dr Brooks said. “It was not just the physical aspects of feeding the patients that the nurses needed to focus on. They clearly required substantial skills, patience and a well-developed understanding of the human condition.

“I hope that my research will encourage nurses in clinical practice to take ownership of the vital role of feeding and that patient nutrition will improve as its worth is acknowledged.

“However, they can not do it alone. During times of restricted resources, such as the global downturn, this is more of a challenge than ever. But it is clearly an essential part of the nursing role and it is vital that those who manage nursing resources realise its importance.”

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Readers' comments (1)

  • To improve human nutritional support we first need to desist from using the term 'feeding'.

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