People often ask me what it’s like to work with members of the Saudi royal family, they want to know what the Princes and Princesses are really like. In short, they’re just like any other person when it comes to being a patient, but with some financial and social benefits of course.
I wanted to share this interesting and unbelievable incident which will have you shaking your head in amazement and laughing out loud at the absurdity that sometimes goes on when Saudi royals come to the hospital.
The Saudi royal family is huge, estimated to consist of around 15,000-20,000 members, but nobody seems to know the real figure. The royals have their own specific services and VIP wards in some of the Saudi government hospitals, read more about them here: http://blueabaya.com/2010/10/saudi-arabia-and-vip-patients.html
Although the regular wards are not designated to accommodate VIP’s, occasionally royal patients are admitted there. Some royals actually request to be assigned to a bed on the normal wards. These patients prefer to be treated under the specific medical service related to their illness, rather than the VIP service. This way they get the care related to their condition, not their status. Some of the Princesses have told me they want to avoid the VIP wards like the plague because of rumors within the extensive royal family. Patients have many visitors and apparently others will most likely recognize which family is in question and there will be talk.
The peculiar incident happened when I was relatively new to the Kingdom and not fully familiar with all the VIP protocols and hassles yet. It was an ordinary night shift until the charge nurse received a phone call for an admission from the ICU. I heard her screaming on the phone informing them we didn’t have empty beds, then shaking her head in disbelief and putting the phone down. The other Asian nurses gathered at the nursing station, speaking loudly in Malay and Tagalog. Since by now I’d noticed this was a common occurrence, I thought nothing of it and continued my work.
After a while I saw some nurses getting a room ready for the admission. The ward had already been full, so they’d transferred one patient onto another ward to empty out the room for the ICU admission. I was busy with my own patients, and because I wasn’t the allocated nurse who would be receiving the new patient, continued to ignore the commotion the Asian nurses were causing over the transfer. As was usual, I was the only western nurse on duty, the rest of the staff were Asian. It was very common that the western nurses were not let in on what was going on, unless it was a life and death situation, so I thought it was insignificant.
When the patient finally arrived from the ICU on her bed, all of a sudden the other nurses, including the charge and the allocated nurse, suddenly disappeared like samboosas on Ramadan. I saw the western ICU nurse pushing the bed with some five male relatives in tow. The patient was totally covered with a white sheet, which is normal in Saudi for the female patients. When female patients are transferred on their beds around the hospital, for privacy reasons the white sheets are normally used to cover the entire patient, resulting in an ‘on the way to the morgue’-look.
Because I was the only nurse around, I went to help and greeted the relatives with salaams and a smile, only to be answered with blank stares and silence. Next we had to transfer the patient to the ward bed. We turned the patient and placed the sliding board underneath, pulling her to the other bed using the sheets. I thought it was odd they still hadn’t wanted to remove the covers, but I had gotten accustomed to seeing all sorts of weird things and again thought nothing of it. I took notice of the expensive watches, pristine white, crisp thobes and strong oud perfumes the men were wearing which made me think they were probably of upper class status.
Next the male relatives started to fuss about the A/C. The most common complaint Saudi patients have when they first enter the patient room is: “the air conditioning is too COLD, please make it hot”. Saudis are afraid the cold air will worsen all illnesses. So I assured them I would adjust the AC to make the room as hot as possible. The looks on their faces were as if I’d said something to the likes of ” I will give the patient heroine”.
The oldest male relative, now clearly upset, replied in perfect English, “No! We want cold air! And bring ice please! We need lots of ice.” I informed them we had an ice machine in the patient kitchen which relatives could use freely. The men glanced at each other and I got a feeling they weren’t liking my services so I excused myself and left the room.
I had been handed over the patient file but didn’t have time to look at her details, rather I wanted to find the allocated nurse to give the file to but she was nowhere to be found. Next a myriad of black clad women started entering the ward. They were all dressed in designer abayas, high heels and had covered their entire heads with the ends of their shaylas (scarves) thrown over the faces. The smell of expensive bohkoor and perfumes filled the ward. I felt a sense of curiosity now and checked the patient name. Al-Saud. And the two names before that made me gulp.
Now it started to make sense why all the Asian nurses had vanished and were still hiding in the patient rooms. I was still the sole nurse visible on the ward, standing like a statue now at the nursing station not knowing what to do. The female relatives asked for the room number and inquired what would happen. Some were weeping frantically and waving their hands in the air chanting something I assumed were prayers. Others were being walked by two Ethiopian maids on each side. One needed a wheelchair. I had seen all the drama Saudi women could create when a patient died but nothing to this scale before.
Finally the frightened charge nurse emerged from her hiding place. I asked her what was going on and the whole insane truth was revealed. The patient was indeed a Royal Princess. As a matter of fact, she was also deceased. They had just admitted a dead body.
I had unknowingly been transferring a deceased royal Princess. I gasped at the thought of not only handling a dead body like one that was alive and thought back at everything I had told the relatives. Why didn’t the nurses inform me?! I wanted to vanish into a tiny hole somewhere and not come out until this royal-hullabaloo was over with.
Naturally in Saudi as in all other hospitals around the world, the deceased patient will always be washed and prepared and then transferred to the morgue. According to Islam the body should be buried as soon as possible and any decaying of the body should be avoided. The process in Saudi is very swift compared to what we are used to in the west, where the bodies might be in the morgues weeks at a time for example. Very seldom are autopsies carried out in Saudi-Arabia. Once the patient dies, the families take it as a decree from Allah and the reason of death to them becomes insignificant, unless they suspect a gross violation from medical staff which is extremely rare (that they would suspect or care).
So why was the dead body of a royal Princess occupying one the beds on our ward, not the morgue, or the VIP ward, which has huge rooms complete with separate guest rooms? Well the reason is simply that’s what the family wanted and because of their status, practically owning the hospital, they could make it happen. They wanted for all the relatives and especially the King to be able to say goodbye and pray for the ‘patient’ before she was taken away. The morgue would not be a place fit for a Princess as high as her and how could the royal princesses visit the real morgue without fainting anyway?
It was well past midnight but visitors kept coming in and out causing quite a lot of confusion in the other patients and relatives who were curiously peeking out of their rooms to see what was going on. There was hysterical crying in the hallways, maids were coming in with endless trays of chocolates, pastries and other sweets. A few Ethiopian maids were dressed in fancy uniforms, serving Arabic coffee from the intricate golden dallahs to the female visitors, who sipped the coffee under their black veils, never revealing their faces to anyone. Drivers and guards were hanging around the hallways, some were watching after children that were thank God, oblivious to the madness that was going on.
One of the younger princesses couldn’t handle the stress and Her Highness was brought to me by a male relative asking to measure the blood pressure. I directed the moaning and groaning princess to sit in a quiet area and took the readings. They were slightly elevated but nothing to worry about, I said. The male relative strongly disagreed and demanded to see a cardiologist at once. He ordered me to give any kind of blood pressure medication on the spot.
I tried to explain to him how, first of all since the young lady was healthy and wasn’t on any medications, I couldn’t just go get a random blood pressure medication, secondly there are maybe hundreds of medications and doses to choose from and thirdly, it would be impossible to get medicine out of the machine without doctors orders AND her being listed as a patient on this particular ward, and fourth, no doctor would ever prescribe any medications based on these readings!
I told the man it’s best we let her sit for a while, drink some water and try to relax, then I’ll measure the BP again and she would be just fine, inshallah. He was clearly upset at what I had suggested, acting as if the woman was going to have a heart attack.
So as is commonplace with this type of demanding Saudi patients, my explanations were not good enough and he needed to hear the exact same things coming from a doctors mouth. I was forced to call the cardiologist on call, who happened to be in the middle of an operation at the cardiac surgery unit, to come down to the floor. The doctor was extremely angry and shouted to me on the phone. I told him how sorry I was but I had to call because it was for a royal princess.
When the cardiologist, a Saudi male himself, arrived at the ward, looked at the patient and saw the blood pressure readings (which were by now even better) he simply laughed and left. I was standing there not knowing what to do next but thankfully the male relative was so upset at the lack of service he took the faint princess elsewhere. I was relieved.
It was now nearing Fajr (early morning) prayer time and the worst traffic to the newly established morgue had quieted down. The Asian staff were still mostly hiding in the staff room or patient rooms, trying to avoid any contact with the royal family in fear of saying or doing something to upset anyone and as a consequence, loosing their jobs.
There was still no word when the King would make his appearance to say his farewells. There were guards placed on all the entrances and the staff was anxiously awaiting his arrival. I was actually excited to have the opportunity to at least see the King.
By the time night shift was over the ward had started to have a distinct deathly smell to it. Especially around the room-turned morgue, the stench was getting almost unbearable despite all the burned bokhoor and flowers. To my disappointment I never got the chance to meet the King. Eventually the King had arrived for a quick visit that afternoon and only after that was the body taken to the cemetery for burial. I’m glad I wasn’t on duty that day, can’t imagine what the smell was like by then.
Definitely one of the stories from working as a nurse in a Saudi hospital I will never forget!
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Hello there, I’m Laura, the author of Blue Abaya, the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia established in 2010. I’ve been traveling around and exploring Saudi Arabia since 2008.
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