Irish nurse deals with results of mob violence in powerful new RTE show

Berna Breen
Berna Breen

A nurse who swapped her Irish ER ward to treat trauma patients in the most dangerous capital city on the planet has spoken of her deep shock at the sheer volume of victims shot and stabbed every hour of the day in Honduras.

Wexford nurse Berna Breen has worked in busy and sometimes chaotic and overcrowded A&E departments in Dublin, New York and Australia for the past 20 years.

But in a new RTE series, the experienced nurse is left visibly affected by the victims of violent gun and knife attacks pouring through the swinging doors of the main hospital in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.

The Irish mother switched her day job in University Hospital Waterford for an eye-opening stint in a city ravaged by drug wars for the award-winning series, Toughest Place To Be.

While Irish emergency departments regularly hit the headlines due to the challenging conditions brought on by the trolley crisis, the A&E wards of Hospital Escuela Universitario – which cater for the poorest people in the city – are patrolled by masked, military police armed with assault rifles.

In the Central American country – known as the original banana republic – a person has been murdered every hour of every day since 2010.

The epidemic of gang and drug violence exploded after Honduras became the key staging post for cocaine smuggling from South America to the U.S. in recent decades.

In powerful footage, the Irish nurse is seen looking shell shocked on her last night shift at the end of a seemingly endless stream of gun wounds, machete attacks and punishment beatings.


“It’s overwhelming. I’ve had the most daunting night of my life,” she tells the cameras. “It’s probably the busiest ever with regards to assaults, the volume of them, the severity of them, the associated sadness, the working conditions, the lack of space.

“There was a constant flow of trauma all night. Something we wouldn’t be used to in Ireland at all.

“I spoke to one doctor and said it was really disturbing. She said: ‘This is our life, it is the way it is for us.’”

Patients are seen getting gaping wounds washed out with soapy water – with little or no pain relief – to ensure they don’t get infections down the line.

“Unfortunately, now we only have some painkillers and they’re not very strong. We only use them on a limited basis,” explains the Honduran A&E’s head nurse Felipe, who took the Irish medic into her home during her visit.

One young man is seen crying in pain as his open wounds from a savage machete attack are stitched up and washed out during the Irish nurse’s last chaotic night in the department.

“He’s in agony,” Berna tells the cameras.

“That was pretty horrific. It was a savage attack. He has facial lacerations, his feet, both hands. He probably won’t ever get full function in his fingers. They need to clean the wounds out immediately because they will get infection.

“There is no pain relief, no local anaesthetic, they are pouring soap into those wounds. They are always looking at the long-term recovery rather than the immediate management of pain.

“They are as sterile as they can be and do the best with what they have. We are blessed that we have medicines here.”

Shortly afterwards a woman is wheeled in with gunshot wounds to her abdomen and leg after a robbery to her business.

She is followed by a clearly terrified young man who told how he was dragged off the street by roving gang members, taken to a “crazy house” and beaten senseless with rocks.


Now five months on from her visit to Honduras, Berna has nothing but admiration for the extraordinary hospital staff who work under such difficult conditions.

While Ireland has been grappling with the trolley crisis, she said the conditions in the biggest public hospital in Honduras are worlds away from the circumstances in Irish hospitals.

“You just cannot compare the two. The A&E over here can be equally as busy from a manual labour point of view because patients are not moved on.”

“The issue over there is the violence and the sheer volume of the violence. 

“I worked in Blanchardstown hospital in 2001 and you did see the gunshot wounds, you did see attacks of a different nature, but you didn’t see them one a minute.”

She said the patients in the biggest hospital in the Honduran capital simply don’t have access to the type of medications and equipment available in Ireland’s hospitals.

“In all of my nursing, one thing I can’t bear is that you can’t get someone pain controlled. Over there the patients seemed to be accepting of it. They just sat through it.

Because it was huge volumes I didn’t see a lot of reassuring the patients. They didn’t have time.

“We would be giving gas and air or a local anaesthetic or what we would call conscious sedation.”

She said the details of the attacks on the Honduran people were also very difficult to hear.

“We had a punishment attack one night, but often they don’t come in. They’re killed. Machete attacks are two a penny.”

During a visit to a rehabilitation centre for ex-criminals in the city, one gang member tells how he was recruited as a child after being virtually abandoned by his parents.

In a shocking clip he openly admits kidnapping and raping women during their conversation.

“Because I was taking drugs and I was quite young and like having sex, I would rape the women they were going to kill,” he says.

Among all the bloodshed and violent attacks are the extraordinary nurses and doctors who work heroically, sometimes caring for up to 50 patients at a time.

Berna was bowled over by the warmth of Felipe (left), the senior nurse who brought her into her own home and even moved out of her own bed for her Irish guest.

“They’re beautiful people. It is so hard to get your head around. There is such a warmth about the people.

“They really appreciate the small things in life. They couldn’t have treated me better. I slept in Felipe’s bed and she hopped in with her daughter.

“There was such bonding. In the morning, we were all doing our make-up together. And they were fun – even though they had been through so much.

“She says when she leaves the house they leave their lives in God’s hands.

“She has family in America and could move there, but her children would not want to move from there. They love their life. It was a fantastic experience.”

Felipe tells Berna during filming how her 26-year-old son was one of the many innocent victims of violence – murdered on the street for just 1,000 dollars.

The police never found his killer, but she insists it hasn’t deterred her from treating members of violent gangs who pour into her hospital every night.

“The oath I took in nursing is to save lives and so I think of how I can save this person’s life even if he is a criminal.”

Toughest Place To Be... An A&E Nurse, RTE One tomorrow at 9.35pm