Eight nurses from Maine returned safely from Libya last week after delivering supplies and providing six days of instruction to understaffed hospitals in the rebel-controlled, seaside city of Benghazi.

Most of Libya’s nurses, who were contracted from the Philippines and Cambodia, fled the country when civil war erupted there in February. So the American nurses taught medical students basic nursing skills like CPR, inserting IVs and infection prevention techniques like wearing gloves when handling wounds.

“Washing hands was a big one,” said Jayne Halle, 64, a retired nurse from Portland. “There wasn’t much of that going on. We taught them to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ when you wash your hands because that’s about how long you’re supposed to wash your hands for. It’s little things that can make a big difference.”

The nurses took the trip with Partners for World Health, a Scarborough-based nonprofit that’s dedicated to reducing medical waste and helping third-world countries with their medical needs. The group was joined by representatives from the Libyan Community Association of Oregon, which helped put the trip together.

The group flew into Cairo, Egypt, on the evening of July 12 and stayed at a hotel overlooking the 4,500-year-old Egyptian pyramids. The next day, they chartered an air-conditioned bus for the 675-mile desert trek from Cairo to Benghazi.

Benghazi, on the Mediterranean Sea, is Libya’s second-largest city, about 600 miles east of the capital, Tripoli. Soon after the civil war began, the rebels fighting against dictator Moammar Gadhafi took control of Benghazi.

Most of the fighting is now in the western part of the country, closer to the capital, but signs of war hung around Benghazi like billboards, the nurses said. They traveled in a small convoy, anchored by vehicles with mounted machine guns. In the distance, they heard and saw gunfire.

Often, patients who came into the emergency room had shrapnel injuries or gunshot wounds, or injuries from land mines. The realities of war were startlingly different from the sterilized version shown on the American news, Halle said.

“I asked one of the freedom fighters, ‘What happened to you?’” she said. “He turned on the cellphone and showed the entire battle, and then when he got hit.

“In another video, they found four of our fellow freedom fighters beheaded, and he showed it right on phone,” she said. “When you look at war in America, you can pick and choose what you want to see. There, you have video, you have the actual wound, you see the families affected. It’s very different.”

The nurses described the country as a series of incongruities. Benghazi had beautiful, high-tech hospitals, but no one to staff them. On some roads, small shacks stood in the shadows of Gadhafi’s opulent compounds.

Although the city is beautiful, with Mediterranean views and lots of greenery, bags of trash littered the streets because sanitation services stopped when the war began.

Lisa Nutt said the presence of the American nurses helped distract Libyans from the hardships the city has endured since the war began.

“At one point, we distributed Beanie Babies that my children had collected to the children in the burn ward,” Nutt said. “You could just see the smiles on their faces. It was like, for that brief moment, there wasn’t any war going on.”

The city helped make the nurses sympathetic to the rebels’ cause, they said. They saw prison cells — basically large holes in the ground with small ventilation holes — where Gadhafi kept prisoners for years at a time.

They heard stories from patients about loved ones disappearing during the night, never to be heard from again. And they saw hundreds of unfinished buildings. Gadhafi apparently gave large contracts to friends and family members, who started construction projects, got paid and abandoned them, the nurses said. No one held them accountable.

The main hospital where the nurses worked, Benghazi Medical Center, took 35 years to complete because so many contractors abandoned the project, they said.

Despite America’s sometimes dubious reputation in the Middle East, even among its allies, the nurses experienced only strong pro-America sentiments. Libyan residents flashed peace signs and smiles as the group passed, said Emily Gerardo, 33, a nurse from the Brentwood Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Yarmouth.

While the group toured Freedom Square, where much of the revolution began, a group of men in a tent learned that they were Americans and offered them tea from a giant silver kettle.

“One man said to us, ‘You came even before your country and your president did,’” Gerardo said. “You could tell just our being there meant a lot to them.”

The group did have some travel troubles. On the way back to Cairo from Libya, the nurses spent five hours crossing the border, with the Egyptian border patrol shaking down the drivers for money, the nurses said. The delay caused them to miss their flights, and they had to take circuitous flights back to the United States.

Elizabeth McLellan, the founder of Partners for World Health and a nurse at Maine Medical Center, is already planning a second trip to Libya, later this year.

Now that the group has a better picture of the country’s medical needs, it can bring supplies and design teaching plans that will fill gaps the hospitals can’t fill on their own.

“I would definitely go back,” said Nutt, echoing the other nurses.

“We helped save quite a few people just with the supplies we brought and the techniques we taught. Imagine what we could do if we all just convinced one more nurse to come along. We made a big difference with a small group, but we can do even better.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at:

[email protected]