Dubai is a remarkable city, Matthew James Ball tells me. He is all smiles as he narrates how he found the people here to be “so friendly and helpful” and the city itself “amazing”.

“I’m definitely planning to return here on another visit. Next time though it will be with my family – my wife and three children.”

Matthew was in the emirate last month, one of 10 nurses shortlisted for the inaugural Aster Guardians Global Nursing Awards, selected from over 24,000 nurses from 184 countries. Even as Anna Qabale Duba from Kenya lifted the glittering trophy and received the $250,000 cheque, the other nine shortlisted nurses received $5,000 each.

While all the nurses had inspiring stories to tell and an astonishing body of work that made every one of them equally eligible for the prize, Matthew’s life story is perhaps a tad different in that he decided to become a nurse after experiencing the love and care he received while he was a patient. Being a nurse, he says, has changed him in many ways including giving him certain skills that have come in extremely handy as a dad.

A nurse practitioner and psychotherapist, Matthew who was born in the UK but has lived in Australia for over 20 years, has clearly experienced life on both sides of the line. When barely 20, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia following a period of homelessness. After undergoing treatment for two years, he emerged without symptoms – and decided to move from patient to healer. He would soon go on to be a leader in this profession.

Based on the experiences he had firsthand as a patient, he introduced novel approaches when he became care-giver – approaches that are now being embraced widely in the field of mental health and well-being.

“As a patient in the mental health system, I experienced some amazing nursing,” he tells me, on the sidelines of the awards ceremony that was held at Atlantis, the Palm. “It changed my life. I guess I was inspired by those people who helped me,” he says. So, when he started to consider what he wanted to do with his life, he did not have to think too much. “I wanted to become a nurse.”

That Matthew also enjoys being with people was another factor that made him choose nursing as a career. “Nursing gave me the opportunity to be in people’s lives. This sort of personal experience in nursing, where you are in people’s lives, is truly a privilege,” says the father of three.

Wais Mohammad Qarani would agree. Another nurse shortlisted for the award, he, however, could not make it to the event in Dubai due to personal reasons.

Playing a vital role strengthening the nursing and midwifery profession in not only his country, Afghanistan, but also as an advocate at different national and international forums, the Nursing Director is passionate about his career.

“As nurses, we need to be caring when we interact with patients. We should gain their trust and confidence, and at no point should we do anything to break that trust,” says Wais, who began his career in 2009 and has received several honours for his unstinting work in the field of healthcare. Not unlike Matthew, Wais, too, agrees that being a nurse has sharpened his skills as a dad.

The power of listening

Did being a nurse impact his role as a father at home? I ask.

Matthew smiles as he ruminates over the question. “Interesting point, now that you mention it,” he says.

“My children and my wife say I spend a lot more time listening than I used to since I became a nurse. And I think it’s because we are teaching others and at the same time practising the importance of listening to people.”

He talks about his 13-year-old daughter who, not unlike many adolescents, is beginning to have a mind of her own. “One thing I found with her is that she is changing a lot,” says the 2017 Australian Mental Health Nurse of the Year. “She has a lot of opinions, a lot of ideas. I think I used to get a lot cross and frustrated earlier. But now, I have realised that if I’m quiet and listen to her, she will talk her way through and everything will be fine.”

Matthew cannot underscore enough the benefits and power of listening. In many instances where people are experiencing issues, a friend with a keen ear is all that may be looking for.

“I think I’m definitely a better listener now,” he says. “And that includes not just at the centre where I work but in my personal life too.

“I think nurses learn [how to be better listeners]. They have many other skills and while they do use all those skills, I think we forget that sometimes if we take the time to just listen to someone’s story – someone in the street or hospital or your partner – that alone could help make a huge difference in their lives.”

He admits that recognising the power of listening has had a huge impact on him. “I realised that I don’t need to try and solve everyone’s problems. But just by listening to them, I have found that they themselves can work out their difficulties and find solutions to some of their problems. And that includes the person front too.”

Wais from Afghanistan would second that.

“Yes, I have become a much better listener that I used to be before I took up this career,” says the father of two. “I also think I have a lot more patience now.”

These are qualities that have surely had an impact on his family life too. “I must say I have become a lot more caring since I have joined this profession.”

It’s a quality that is visible in the way he interacts with his children too, if his mother’s words are any indication.

“My mother lives with me [and my family] and she always tells me ‘you rarely react strongly to anything that your children do’. When I think about it, yes, I guess I have become a lot more caring and empathetic to their needs,” he says. “And a lot more sympathetic.”

Wais is convinced these qualities “came to me from this profession. I have experienced several instances to prove this in my personal life,” he says.

Mentor and caregiver

Wais takes his role as caregiver not only to patients but also to his colleagues in the nursing sector.

“I’m a mentor and supervisor to the nurses,” he says, in a video call from Afghanistan on the eve of the awards ceremony.

In a country where the majority of nurses are male – “nearly 80 per cent”, says Wais – the attrition rate is quite high as many feel their career gets stagnant at some point. “My strategy is to retain them, and encourage the new generation to join the profession.” To that end, he has been conducting several programs for nurses helping them continue honing their academic and practical skills and climb up the career ladder.

The passion that he has for the profession is clear when he describes how he and his team go to great lengths to ensure that the patients in their care are given the best treatment possible under the circumstances.

“I work with many nurses and midwives and they often tell me that caring is one of my strongest personality traits. I think my personality is fit for nursing and I guess I was born to be a nurse.

“So, for all the difficulties I initially experienced when studying and earning a degree, now I think it was all worth when I see the smiles on the faces of the patients I care for and the team I oversee. Also, it gives me great pleasure to receive such honours and recognition for the work we are doing.”

If Wais is going out of his way to enthuse and encourage nurses to join the profession, Matthew used his unique position of having once been a patient to explore new approaches to helping people in distress.

After training for more than 15 years as a counsellor and psychotherapist, and mental health nurse, the Australia resident went on to become a Nurse Practitioner in the public mental health service and in private practice at the Humane clinic, in Adelaide. He is known for facilitating alternative approaches to working with people who hear voices and experience other unusual realities.

Matthew developed an approach for psychosis that eliminates threat, and encourages a person to feel safe. “The idea was to help us understand that the people who have unusual experiences and significant distress are really responding to difficulties in their life,” says the multiple award-winning healthcare provider. “It is something anyone can experience if they are overwhelmed by certain experiences in their lives.”

He uses what is known in the medical field as the Maastricht approach where the care-givers “try to make sense of and find meaning in people’s psychosis and voice hearing”.

A lot of time is spent with the patient in an environment of love and compassion “and hearing people’s stories”. Without doubt, developing mutual relationships can help people recover, he says. It’s essential that relationships are without goals to enable a person to abandon the altered state. “Human connection,” he insists, “is the best medicine.”

To that end, he has opened a non-hospital for people in distress where he and his team also train communities to deliver their approaches to treating people with issues.

The number of people experiencing mental health issues did spike during the pandemic mainly because there were major and sudden disruptions to their lives, he says. He talks about meeting several people who were experiencing “serious issues” because of the fact that they were unable to recognise people who until recently they could easily. The reason: the now ubiquitous masks.

“Younger people are a lot visual,” says the well-being expert who speaks internationally on humane approaches to working with people in distress. “I have two small children [apart from a teenager] and suddenly they were seeing people who were not recognisable because of masks. This was upsetting [for them].”

Luckily for the kids, the fact that their dad is a nurse in the mental well-being sphere helped a great deal to cope with the issues triggered by the pandemic.

For Matthew, being shortlisted for the Aster award “feels like a completion of a journey”, he says.

“Many years ago I was in hospital very sick. Now I have a wonderful wife and three children, a clinic and a career. Being here for this award ceremony is truly an emotional moment.”

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