The story of German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Judith Heepe, director of nursing at Berlin’s Charite Hospital, is a bit like the tale of a rabbit and a hedgehog. Heepe, like a skilled hedgehog, is always faster.
In September 2019, Spahn was in Mexico signing a contract to speed up the process for Mexican nursing staff to obtain work permits in Germany. Heepe is already there. A month earlier, Spahn had sent his secretary of state to the Philippines on a recruiting mission. Heepe is there too.
In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the rabbit thinks to himself: That’s impossible. Judith Heepe saw the funny side when telling her imaginary rivalry with Spahn. In the race towards recruiting nursing staff from abroad,You have to be very creative. And sometimes take care of problems with your own hands.
“The international nursing staff has provided warmth and openness,” said Judith Heepe
For more than five years, Heepe has led the nursing division at Charite, Berlin’s oldest and most well-known hospital in Germany. He is in charge of 4,600 staff members, and during the second wave of the pandemic they have been working under pressure every day, especially the intensive care nurse on the COVID-19 ward .
Struggling to recruit nurses in Germany
If a pandemic broke out four years ago, Charite might have to admit defeat. “At that time we were short on 400 nurses. Every year we closed this gap with 100 workers and increased our training capacity at the same time,” said Heepe.
That’s why he flew not only to Mexico and the Philippines, but also to Albania and to make approaches in South America. Soon, Charite also wants to bring Brazilian nurses to Germany. “The market in Germany is really dry,” he said. According to the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive and Emergency Medicine (DIVI), the country lacks an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 skilled workers in intensive care.
Politicians are constantly asking Heepe how the situation has been until now. “I can only tell them: this situation is our own fault. In recent years, there have not been enough trained and qualified people. We now have a gap that is completely avoidable in the next four or five years,” he said. It’s an emergency that could cost Germany the next few weeks, with intensive care wards overcrowded due to the pandemic. “It also means we have to pay people better,” Heepe said.
Struggle with officials and the bureaucracy
Heepe is someone who gets things done. Her motto: Don’t take no as an answer.
“At some point, I got to know the State Office for Health and Social Affairs better than I would have liked,” he said with a laugh. He always talks about the office requirements for foreign nurses to provide original documents.Her relationship with Berlin’s health authorities has a history: It happened almost three years ago, half a world away in Mexico. And Heepe still remembers every detail.
“I was in a video conference with 15 Mexicans who were really desperate because their recruitment company went bankrupt,” he recalls. “And then I told them: ‘Who cares? We can do it! We’ll get you here!'”
For Heepe, it marked the start of a tense side job. She takes everything an agency normally sorts, from visas and airlines to dealing with officials, bank accounts and health insurance to administering language courses. And sometimes, when the entire project seemed risky due to German bureaucracy, he took unconventional actions.
‘I told my German colleagues:’ You have everything here. You don’t have to emigrate, ” said Mexican nurse Herbert Perez
Suitcase full of documents
In April 2018, Herbert Perez boarded a plane from Mexico City to Berlin with a suitcase and backpack. Charite has paid for the flight. In the backpack are two pairs of trousers, three T-shirts, and two shirts. In the suitcase: all original paper documents for 15 Mexican nurses wishing to work in Germany. The young Indigenous nurse from the southern state of Oaxaca with a German first name is at the forefront; he had everything in his suitcase that officials in Berlin were asking for.
“The scales at the airport showed exactly 22.5 kilograms,” recalls Perez. “At the last second people still come to the airport to hand over documents.” The nurse can laugh now as she looks back on her first trip to Germany, but at that time she was very nervous.
“What happens if I forget something amidst the hustle and bustle, or if documents get lost on the way or if the airline makes a mistake and the luggage is lost?” All these thoughts ran through his head. But it all worked out. Today, following a six-month program to certify credentials, Perez is a valued colleague. She works in a coronavirus intensive care ward and is helping day by day to get Germany through the crisis.
Dramatic situation in the intensive care ward
“The current situation is very critical, there are only a few intensive care beds,” said Perez. “At the moment we are reaching our limit.” He himself has tested his limits – like many nurses who have caught the coronavirus and are bedridden with fever for a week.
Perez wanted to be a nurse since she was a child. He’s the kind of person who needs to be told when to slow down. Even today, he is surprised whenever his colleagues tell him that he needs to relax, that he deserves a vacation or a day off. “I don’t know things like that from Mexico, there you have less rights as a worker.”
Heepe arranged everything so that Perez’s partner, a preschool teacher, could join him immediately in Berlin and start working at Charite kindergarten.
International success story, with only winners? Not too. There is growing criticism that Germany is recruiting trained personnel from developing countries when they are also urgently needed in their own country. Latest reports in German newspapers Frankfurter Rundschau talk about “maintenance imperialism”.
‘Germany needs to solve its own nursing problems’
The German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive and Emergency Medicine (DIVI) is familiar with these allegations. Experts agree: the shortage of care in Germany is a problem created by its own country and in an emergency like the current coronavirus pandemic, other countries cannot be further weakened.
“Bringing in qualified staff from abroad always sounds like the big answer to this problem. But the more you investigate, the fewer answers seem to be given,” said Michael Isfort, vice chairman of the board of the German Institute for Applied Nursing Research. The proportion of foreign nurses in the hospital sector is currently around 1%. “It’s very small.”
Nurses like Herbert Perez usually went to big cities like Berlin; according to Isfort 90 to 95% of international staff work in large urban centers. “We still have not succeeded in bringing in care workers from abroad to the villages,” he said.
According to experts, it is clear that recruiting staff from abroad will not be a long-term solution to the German care emergency.
This article was translated from German.