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true story

My Life of Service

How one nurse helps people throughout the world.

Nina posing with patients giving thumbs up
Photo credit: Courtesy of Nina Ng
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first heard the story of my mother’s childhood in China. It seems like it’s something that my two older sisters, my younger brother, and I just always knew—it was a part of our family history.

My mom was orphaned at an early age. Her parents passed away when she was six years old, so she ended up living with people who were essentially strangers to her—they “took care” of her, but she worked for them in exchange for a bit of food and shelter.

My mother didn’t grow up with a family, but she created one of her own when she met and married my father. They wanted to give their children a better life—the American Dream—so they figured out a way to come to the United States when my mother was pregnant with my oldest sister. They had very little money and didn’t speak much English, so they took whatever work they could find—my mom was a seamstress and my dad worked in a Chinese restaurant in Staten Island, where he eventually became part owner. My siblings and I all worked in the restaurant to help out. Our parents taught us to work hard, take advantage of every opportunity, do well in school, and make something of ourselves, no matter what the circumstances.

nina posing with her siblings by a river
Me (second from left) and my siblings, Nancy, Diana, and Alvin. Photo credit: Courtesy of Nina Ng

While my siblings and I grew up poor, we certainly had more than our parents did, so giving back to people who are less fortunate has always been on my mind. When I was 10 years old, my fifth-grade teacher gave us a writing assignment: Things in the World That Concern Me Most. I wrote: "There are plenty of things I'm worried about in this world. One of them is war, because of the equipment they have and the amount of people that will die. I'm also worried about those who are homeless and less fortunate."

But 10-year-old me didn’t yet know what I could do to make a difference in the world. For a while I wanted to be a teacher, but in college I decided a career in health care was the best way for me to give back to my community. Ultimately, I chose nursing, which turned out to be the perfect career for me. I’m only 31 now and already I feel like I’ve had opportunities to achieve so many things. 

I spent the first seven years of my career in the emergency department (ED) of a Manhattan hospital. With lots of action and not much routine, it was an ideal place for me to work. The ED really prepares you for anything, with so many challenging scenarios. In the ED, I worked as a clinical bedside nurse, then moved into leadership as a nurse coordinator, and later as the ED’s patient care director. After years of such a busy schedule, I decided it was time to take a step back and figure out where I wanted to go next as a nurse. Where could I best serve?

A stroke of luck: I happened to be emailing with a colleague about a research project when he mentioned that he was serving as the medical director of a small nonprofit organization called NYC Medics. NYC Medics is dedicated to rapidly deploying medical teams to remote areas of disaster zones where there are humanitarian emergencies in order to provide high-level care to those who otherwise would not have access to it. It’s a true front-line organization.

In early 2017, the Iraqi government and allied forces, including the United States, were working to drive ISIS out of Mosul, the last city in Iraq under control of that terrorist group. NYC Medics had set up “trauma stabilization points”—emergency care facilities that followed the front lines of the battle and cared for the injured, which included civilians, soldiers, and even terrorists. Much like my job in the ED, I would be tasked with managing the care of everyone, no matter what they had done before they came through our doors. I accepted the position of assistant coordinator for NYC Medics’ trauma and referral system in Mosul/Erbil, helping to manage the complex crisis.

I was also responsible for hiring local staff. There was no human resources department—no system in place to assist us the way that there is back home. I had to use my own judgment during interviews to determine whether the person sitting in front of me was genuinely looking for a job, or was an ISIS loyalist trying to infiltrate the system. Nothing I had done in my career had truly prepared me to think in this way. But in the end, I found it richly rewarding to be able to provide job opportunities to people who otherwise couldn’t find work. Many had professional degrees in things like engineering and teaching, but because of the economy and conflict in Iraq, could not practice their trades. 

Nina posing with her coworkers in Iraq
My interpreter and I were driving from the trauma stabilization point in Mosul to the Doctors Without Borders field hospital when a group of Iraqi men invited us to eat with them. They knew the good work our organization did and wanted to thank us for taking care of their people. I had been nervous about leaving the trauma stabilization point so it felt good to share a laugh (and some good food) with friendly people. Photo credit: Courtesy of Nina Ng

Of course, I was told about the risks going in, but you don’t really understand what it’s like to be in a war zone until you’re there. As we cared for patients at our trauma stabilization points, gunfire would echo in the distance (and sometimes frighteningly close). Up on the roof, we could see clouds of smoke and dust from bombs and mortar blasts on the horizon. I even had a near miss—one night, I was supposed to go to Mosul but ended up canceling my trip. The next day, the point was hit with a mortar. Thankfully, only one security guard was injured, but it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if I’d been there. Shortly after that event, I made the decision to return home to New York. Though I am not proud I left early, it was the best course of action for me at the time.

I was in shock most of the time while in Iraq. It was like something out of a movie, except it was real. Many of the trauma casualties we saw were children; many brought to us with their arms and legs blown off. I remember very clearly one day going to a field hospital to talk to the staff about quality care measurements and a young woman was brought in who had lost both her legs in a mortar attack. The horror of her injury and how that translated into her echoing wail still haunts me today. I couldn’t imagine the suffering she was experiencing. In that moment, I felt powerless.

When I returned home, I realized that I probably had some level of post-traumatic stress and I didn’t have the emotional resources to process what I had seen. I took a few courses that were geared toward field trauma and mental health in order to create a wellness program for past, present, and future returning NYC Medics volunteers. I attempted to debrief every volunteer who had been deployed to Iraq, using phone apps and social media to reach our volunteers around the world. Sometimes they just needed to talk to someone who understood what they had been through. Other times I referred them for additional mental health services.

A few months after I returned from Iraq, I took my current position as an assistant director of nursing at Northwell Health’s Syosset Hospital. Here, I have the opportunity to supervise all the employees working in the hospital during my shift, including nurses, environmental services employees, lab technicians, and physicians. It’s the perfect channel for all of my energy! I also am able to arrange my schedule so that I can continue to work with medical emergency programs in places like Haiti and Bangladesh. I’m very grateful that my director of nursing is supportive of this work.

People who are orphans, refugees, and victims of war are wonderful, smart, beautiful, talented people who are in a situation that’s out of their control—just like my mother was as an orphan in China 40 years ago.

Nina with her mother
Me and my date—my mother, Lai Har—on our way to a work-related fundraising event. Photo credit: Courtesy of Nina Ng

There are so many places of conflict in the world that it can seem overwhelming, but I try to take it one step at a time. I’ve seen what I can do when I’m overseas as a nurse leader and I toyed with the idea of doing it full time, but I’ve decided instead to focus on how I can help connect Northwell Health with programs overseas. Northwell has a new Global Health program which, like many others in U.S. hospitals, is largely physician driven. My goal is to help grow this program so that other Northwell Health professionals, including nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and nursing assistants, can play roles in planning and leading medical missions around the world.

This is my life’s work. And I love it.

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Published May 28th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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