'A smiling hero': tributes pour in for nurse dead at 36 from Covid-19

Nosheen Iqbal
·5-min read

Areema Nasreen spent her teenage years caring for her sick grandmother. The eldest daughter of parents from Mirpur, Pakistan, she grew up in Birmingham with four brothers and three sisters, and took huge comfort from looking after her nani amma – an experience that propelled her to keep on helping people.

Last January, Nasreen fulfilled a lifelong ambition of graduating from university to become a fully qualified nurse at Walsall Manor Hospital. Last Friday, it was announced that Nasreen and fellow nurse Aimee O’Rourke, both mothers of three children, had died, along with two healthcare assistants. The 36-year-old became the youngest NHS worker to die from Covid-19, leaving her family raw with grief.

Speaking to the Observer, Kazeema, 33, paid tribute to her sister’s sacrifice. “She was a legend,” she said through tears. “Everyone remembers her with so much love and heartbreak because she had so much love to give. She was like a mum to us. She looked after us all.”

The three sisters had spent five hours chatting at home before Nasreen went into intensive care two weeks ago. “Me and her were like twins,” said Kazeema. “We got married on the same day, into the same family. We even had the same due date.”

Kazeema and younger sister Ash, 32, had sat by her bedside at home. “Reema just wanted to sit and talk that day. She called mum in Pakistan and told her not to worry. She had to hold her breath really hard because the coughing was so bad. She just said to her: ‘I’ll be fine, don’t worry. Don’t be upset otherwise I’ll get upset’. And then we took her to hospital.”

Nasreen began her career at Walsall Manor Hospital in 2003 as a housekeeper, the year after she got married. She began nursing soon after and was a popular presence on the ward. One colleague, who didn’t want to give her name, told the Observer: “We love her and miss her. She was an amazing nurse and so grateful for the privilege to do what we do. She always put her patients first and herself last.”

She loved her work, her patients and her colleagues and she always had a smile

Fatima Parkar, nurse

Speaking to the Observer, relative Dr Samara Afzal said the family’s heartbreaking loss was “deeply compounded” by the severe, isolated restrictions of lockdown. “Normally, hundreds of people would come to the house and be there to support family members,” she said. “But with a pandemic, it’s impossible and it’s hard to know how someone is coping without being face to face.”

Nasreen’s elderly parents had initially been stranded in Pakistan by flight cancellations, unable to get home to Birmingham as their daughter was being put on a ventilator in intensive care. Nasreen’s three children, aged from seven to 16 years, were not permitted to visit their mother in hospital. Her funeral was held last Friday, and attended only by immediate family members.

“The [funeral procession] drove along our road and that was enough for us,” said Kazeema. “Everyone respected the distancing rule – Reema would have been really upset if we hadn’t.”

The younger sisters were taking care to comfort their niece and nephews. “I was putting my nephew to bed and he asked if I was going to be his mum now and I just said, ‘Of course, we’ve always been your mums’.” Kazeema began to cry. She had followed in her sister’s footsteps to work in Walsall Manor Hospital a few years ago. “Me and my younger sister always supported Reema: we always looked after the kids and cooked for her and her husband when she was following her dream of going to uni. I don’t know if I could live up to what she did. She was an angel.”

“It’s tragic,” said Afzal. “She was so full of life and such a positive person to be around, always the life and soul at family gatherings and weddings. She was so dedicated to her job and her family, too. She was a fantastic role model and influence for Asian women.”

Former patients of Nasreen, who was frequently described by colleagues as “confident and bubbly”, paid tribute on a Facebook post by Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, remembering her as “professional and kind”, “a fabulous nurse,” “a smiling hero”.

“She loved her work, her patients and her colleagues and she always had a smile,” said nurse Fatima Parkar at Walsall Manor Hospital. “I was very proud of her because, like me, she was a mature student. She worked, she studied and still looked after her family. It’s not easy but she followed her passion.”

A fundraiser set up in Nasreen’s memory last Friday raised over £3,000 in less than 24 hours. “Areema went out of her way with charity – she had a really big heart,” said Afzal. “The money will be donated to causes she was close to, particularly helping poorer families.”

Richard Beeken, chief executive of Walsall Healthcare, told the Observer that staff had been hit especially hard by Nasreen’s death. “She was an inspiration by virtue of what she achieved. To qualify as a clinical professional and be exemplary as she was… There is a local, community connection that will be felt far and wide.”