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The story of German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Judith Heepe, the nursing director at Charite Hospital in Berlin, is a bit like the story of the hare and the hedgehog. Heepe, like the wily hedgehog, is always faster.

In September 2019, Spahn in Mexico signed a contract to speed up the process for Mexican nursing workers to obtain work permits in Germany. Heepe had already been there. A month earlier, Spahn had sent his secretary of state to the Philippines on a recruitment tour. Heepe had been there too.

In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the hare thinks to himself: That’s not possible. Judith Heepe sees the funny side as she recounts her imaginative rivalry with Spahn. In the race to recruit nursing staff from overseas, you need to be very creative. And sometimes take matters into your own hands.

Judith Heepe with a wide smile

‘International nursing staff have provided warmth and openness,’ says Judith Heepe

For more than five years, Heepe has run a nursing department at Charite, the oldest hospital in Berlin and the most famous in Germany. She is responsible for 4,600 workers, and during the second wave of the pandemic they have been working under pressure every day, especially the intensive care nurses in the COVID-19 ward.

Struggling to recruit nurses in Germany

If the pandemic had erupted four years ago, Charite might have had to admit that they made it. “At that time we were short of 400 nurses. Every year we have filled this gap with 100 staff and expanded our training capabilities at the same time,” said Heepe.

That is why she has not only flown to Mexico and the Philippines, but she has also been to Albania and made operations in South America. Soon, Charite also wants to bring Brazilian nurses to Germany. “The German market has run completely dry,” she says. According to the German Interdisciplinary Association for Acute and Emergency Medicine (DIVI), the country is in need of about 3,500 to 4,000 workers. skilled in intensive care.

Politicians are always asking Heepe how the situation came about. “I can only tell them: our own situation is to blame for this situation. In recent years not enough people have been trained and qualified. We now have a gap that was completely avoided. in the next four or five years, “she says. It is an emergency that could cost Germany dearly in the next few weeks, with intensive care stations overcrowded because of the pandemic. “It also means we have to pay people better,” Heepe says.

Struggling with officials and bureaucracy

Heepe is someone who does things. Her mottos: Take nothing to answer.

“At some point, I was more familiar with the State Office for Health and Social Affairs than I ever wanted to be,” she says with a laugh. She was always talking about requirements. office for foreign nurses to provide original documents The relationship with the Berlin health authorities has a history: It happened almost three years ago, half a world away in Mexico.And Heepe still remembers her -every detail.

“I was in a video conference with 15 Mexico who were in despair because their hiring company had gone wrong,” she recalls. “And then I said to them:‘ Who cares? We can do it! We’ll take you here! ‘”

For Heepe, that marked the beginning of zero-breaking side work. She accepted everything the organizations usually arranged, from visas and flights to dealing with officers, bank accounts and health insurance to arranging language courses. And sometimes, when the whole project looked at risk as a result of German bureaucracy, she took unusual steps.

Herbert Perez in the ICU office area

‘I tell my German colleagues:’ You have everything here. You don’t have to emigrate, ” said Mexican nurse Herbert Perez

Costume full of documents

In April 2018, Herbert Perez boarded a plane from Mexico City to Berlin with a suitcase and backpack. Charite had paid for the flight. In the bag were two pairs of trousers, three T-shirts and two shirts. In the bag: all the original paper documents for the 15 Mexican nurses who wanted to work in Germany. The young native nurse from the southern state of Oaxaca with the first German name became a protector; everything was his luggage that officials in Berlin wanted.

“The blades at the airport weighed just 22.5 kilograms,” Perez recalls. “At the last second people were still coming to the airport to drop off documents.” The nurse can now laugh when he thinks back on his first visit to Germany, but at the time it was a shipwreck.

“What would have happened if I had forgotten something in the midst of all the turmoil, or if documents were lost on the way or the airlines made a mistake and the luggage was lost? ” All those thoughts ran through his head. But it all worked out. Today, after a six-month program to prove his credentials, Perez is a valuable colleague. He works on the coronavirus intensive care ward and helps day in, day out to take Germany through the crisis.

Dramatic settings in intensive care wards

“The current situation is extremely dire, there are only a few intensive care beds,” Perez says. “At this point we are reaching the limits of our capacity.” He has already proved his limit – as many nurses had contracted the coronavirus and was bedridden with fever for a week.

Perez wanted to be a nurse since he was a small child. He is the type of person who needs to be told when he should slow down. Even today, he is surprised when his colleagues tell him that he needs to rest, that he deserves a vacation or days off. “I didn’t know things like that from Mexico, then you have fewer rights as an employee.”

Heepe arranges everything so that Perez’s companion, a preschool teacher, can join him in Berlin and start working in Charite kindergarten.

An international success story, then, with just winners? That is not the case. There is growing criticism that Germany is capturing well-trained workers from developing countries when they are urgently needed in their home countries. A recent report in a German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau He spoke of a “nursing empire.”

‘Germany needs to solve its own nursing problem’

The German Interdisciplinary Association for Acute and Emergency Medicine (DIVI) is aware of these allegations. Experts agree: The shortage of German nurses is a problem in the country and in a crisis like the common coronavirus pandemic, other countries should no longer be weakened.

“Bringing in qualified staff from overseas is always a great answer to the problem. But the more you study it, the less likely it is to respond,” he said. Michael Isfort, vice-chairman of the board of the German Institute for Applied Nursing Research. The proportion of foreign nursing staff in the hospital department is currently around 1%. “That’s very small.”

Nurses like Herbert Perez mostly go to cities like Berlin; according to Isfort 90 to 95% of the international workforce works in the cities. “We have not yet been able to get care workers from overseas into rural areas,” he says.

According to experts, hiring foreign workers is clearly not the long-term solution to the German nurse crisis.

This article has been translated from German.