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JustHere | November 15, 2017

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Lessons learnt at the ER… fasting included

Lessons learnt at the ER… fasting included

I am not Muslim and I had had no experience with fasting other than the kind you do prior to a scheduled surgery. That was before I moved to the Middle East, writes Tracy Glenn.


When I arrived in Abu Dhabi from Vancouver, Canada in 2000 I was wide-eyed and curious about this altogether different new country that I had landed in. My job was an ER charge nurse and my patients were mostly Emirati. They spoke Arabic, a language that I had never heard before. Sometimes my female patients spoke from beneath a veil and sometimes their entire face was covered. Coming from a nursing culture where eye contact is part of developing a therapeutic relationship this was just one of the many challenges that I faced. Translators helped immensely with getting information from the patient and family but I was left out of the equation due to my lack of Arabic. I started taking Arabic lessons as soon as I could despite the discouragement I heard – “Arabic is too difficult for a Westerner” and “You will never be able to pronounce the sounds properly”. Baby steps, baby steps.

My first Ramadan was in December 2000 and many of my patients were fasting. ER nurses are great detectives and the signs of fasting were obvious – lips as dry as the desert, halitosis, and movements were slower than usual. Fasting is not a problem with healthy people but sick elderly patients sometimes refused necessary intravenous fluid or inhalers.

I had never been one to go hungry as I consider food to be one of life’s great pleasures but the next Ramadan I decided to fast. Just to see what it felt like.


The family of one of my trauma patients who was in ICU would come down to ER every evening with containers of home-cooked food and zinjabeel tea. They invited all the ER staff to sit and share their food but usually I was the only one who sat and talked and ate with them. I learned what ingredients were in hariss, how long they cooked it, etc. We bonded that Ramadan and became friends.

I had never been one to go hungry as I consider food to be one of life’s great pleasures but the next Ramadan I decided to fast. Just to see what it felt like.

And so it began. Caffeine withdrawal headache. I made a mental note to drink more coffee the next night. What used to be automatic had to be unlearned. Putting the kettle on in the morning. Chewing gum. Reaching for a bottle of water to take a gulp. I made many missteps through sheer forgetfulness. One morning I actually made a coffee, put it in my travel mug, got into my Jeep and drove to work all the while sipping and never clued in until I walked through the front door of the hospital. Gasp.

I noticed that many of our Muslim staff had switched all of their day shifts to nights. I continued to work my normal 12-hour days and nights as scheduled. By about 3 pm I felt as if I was moving through water. Every movement required increased effort. I admit that my eyes were glued to the clock until I heard the call to prayer. Our hospital provided a lovely iftar meal with free vouchers for Muslim staff. The first swallow of mishmish juice was unbelievably delicious. I saw others piling their (multiple) plates high with food but even though I was hungry I wanted to savour and not devour.

Each Ramadan I feel grateful that I am one of the fortunate that has enough but then again I feel grateful most of the time. My non-Muslim friends and colleagues sometimes ask me why I do it. Sometimes they ask me with a ‘why-in-the-world-would-you-do-it’ look on their face. It has opened many interesting and involved discussions. Last week a new staff member revealed that she has fasted before for Christian reasons and we spoke about spirituality.

And every year I have found myself looking forward to Ramadan rather than dreading or escaping it.


  1. Susan Sarada

    Great article! This is my fourth year fasting here in Oman. Muslims are always surprised when they find out I’m fasting but I find it’s an excellent opportunity to learn more about Islam from them. I’m grateful that the company I work for allows me to work reduced hours along with the Muslims. I can’t imagine I’d be very productive those last few hours before Iftar!

  2. What a wonderful idea! I’ve had many conversations about Ramadan with Muslim friends, and I find the concepts at the core of it–to foster empathy for those who are less fortunate–to be a powerful and moving. I think it’s a great initiative, and a beautiful show of openness and cultural humility!

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