2 Week Specials, Medicine in Nepal by Yasmin Butt
Never having travelled abroad before, taking the decision to travel to Nepal was daunting. Nevertheless, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I am from a humble suburb in Staten Island, where everyone stays situated in the same place for the majority of their lives. So when I brought up my desire to travel abroad, it was as if a cataclysm had occurred. I was bombarded with a million questions and critics. However, something about Nepal intrigued me. The only other time I had heard about Nepal was in my history textbook, but as I looked deeper into Nepalese culture – I knew this was the place for me.
For weeks before the trip, I read about Nepalese culture in traveling guides. Also, as a big fan of poetry, I read poems by acclaimed Nepali poet Banira Giri. Mesmerised by the Nepalese people’s connection with nature and the macrocosm that is the natural world astounded me.
I was first exposed to the kindness of the Nepalese, before even stepping foot in Nepal. While aboard the airplane flying to Kathmandu, I was lucky enough to sit next to a nice Nepalese woman. Aware of the language barrier that kept us from communicating with words, kindness became our form of communication. I’ll never forget when the plane encountered turbulence, my heart began racing and my palms became sweaty. The Nepalese woman sitting next to me held my hand tightly. The comfort I felt at that moment is just a small testament to the selfless kindness of the Nepalese.
When first landing in Nepal, I looked nervously for my project supervisor. Benedicte and Samantha welcomed me warmly, calming all of my anxiety after a 20 hour flight. The first night, I stayed at the Excelsior Hotel where I shared a room with two other volunteers. The following morning, we took a six hour bus ride to Chitwan – the centre of medicine in Nepal.
For the remainder of the majority of the trip, we stayed at Hotel Global. The hotel staff was very welcoming and always willing to try their best to accommodate my needs. I shared a room with two other girls, which over the course of my stay I became very close to. We’d stay up late talking and laughing about random moments of our day.
The food was a mix of traditional Nepalese cuisine, but also featured American dishes. I’ll admit, I was not prepared for the intense humidity and heat, especially because it was monsoon season, but the staff always had an endless supply of bottled water for us. When we’d run out of supplies such as shampoo, soap or just wanted extra snacks to have, we’d venture out of the realms of Hotel Global and into the busy streets of Chitwan. Benedicte and Samantha were always eager to schedule a trip for us to restock our supplies. We’d occasionally travel to the market together, where we’d buy mangoes, pomegranates, bananas and other sweets.
My favourite aspect of my accommodation was that together we mirrored the United Nations. My fellow volunteers were from Singapore, Hong Kong, Spain, Scotland, Ireland, England, South Africa, France, Poland, and China to name a few. We’d teach each other how to say certain phrases in one another’s language and laugh at how badly we’d pronounce it. My accommodation was very welcoming and created a comfortable environment that allowed us to revitalise, learn and enjoy each other’s company.
My project placement
The day after we arrived at Chitwan, we began volunteering at our medical placements. A group of about six volunteers were assigned a different department every day. I had the opportunity to volunteer at big establishments such as the Cancer Hospital, Family Planning Clinic and National City Hospital.
Additionally, I visited smaller clinics located in villages, where often times the clinic was the only means of medical care available to the community. I visited Jutpani Healthpost and Khaireni Healthpost. The nurses and doctors were always eager to translate what their patients expressed to them, to take us on a tour of the hospital and answer all of our questions.
Due to age limitations and language barriers, I didn’t have much hands-on involvement with patients. However, I enjoyed shadowing the doctors. They were very knowledgeable, attentive and experienced. Not all the doctors and nurses in my placements spoke English, but they would try their best to make sure I understood. They would often draw diagrams for us to understand the anatomical reasoning behind a certain medical procedure or ailment.
My experiences at the placements imbued my mind with new knowledge. This knowledge was supplemented by lectures at Hotel Global’s separate auditorium. Here, we’d gather to listen to guest doctors’ present lectures on topics such as Gastro Intestinal Bleeding, Anatomy and Common Poisoning. The doctors seemed so passionate in their field of work, further inspiring me to become an emergency room physician.
Memorable moments in Nepal
I’ll never forget walking through the Cancer Hospital’s wards and having patients tug at my white lab coat as I walked by. They’d wave their x-rays at me, pleading for me to take a look at them. I felt an intense responsibility and inclination to help them – but I did not know how to express to them that I was not an actual doctor. Seeing the desperation in their eyes further stirred my aspiration to become a doctor. The number of patients far outnumbers the number of doctors. I vowed to come back one day, and when I do I won’t hesitate to look at the waving x-rays.
The doctors I met at my placements never failed to inspire me. I despondently listened as they told me of the difficulties of having limited resources, but they filled me with hope as they told me of the innovative ways they maximized the usefulness of the limited resources they had.
I met Dr. Bal Krishna Thapa, the Chief of Nuero Oncosurgery Department of Surgical Oncology at the B.P Memorial Cancer Hospital. My eyes widened in amazement as he showed me a presentation he presented at Stanford about his new method of operating on brain tumours with tools as simple as “a fork and knife”. He gleamed as he showed me before and after pictures of patients he had helped when everyone else declined them. He insisted that I meet a mentee of his, and she happened to be Nepal’s first female neurosurgeon. Her humble, but powerful presence truly captivated me as we sat down to speak and snack on mangoes. I fell in love with the innovativeness and dedication of the doctors.
Alongside volunteering in hospitals, we visited places that highlighted why doctors are needed and how we could further help the communities that kindly accepted us. We visited the Nutrition Rehabilitation Home, Children’s Homes, HIV Centre for Children and schools where we trained children on dental hygiene.
Sightseeing on the weekend
Along with visiting medical placements, we also had the opportunity to explore Nepalese culture by visiting attractions. We visited Chitwan National Park, a beautiful sanctuary for many endangered species of animals. There, I canoed, went bird watching and visited an elephant breeding centre!
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the spectacular traditional Nepalese dances presented by the Tharu Culture House; we even had the chance to join the final dance! To celebrate the end of our stay, we dined at an authentic Nepalese restaurant named BhojanGriha, where cultural dances were presented as we were served momos, dal bhat, chapati and a plethora of other delicious Nepalese foods.
We visited many beautiful temples in Katmandu including the Swayambhu Temple – also known as the Monkey Temple – where holy monkeys gamboled aimlessly and we were treated to a breath-taking view when we reached the top. We went shopping in Kathmandu’s crowded streets, where there were innumerable little shops each offering their own array of goods. By embracing and learning about Nepalese culture through their sights, I gained a greater understanding of the occurrences that occurred at my placements, aiding me in making those connections.
The Projects Abroad staff truly made my experience one to remember. They made my first time travelling abroad as exciting and comfortable as possible. I was afraid I’d get homesick, but my project supervisors were so kind, I felt like I was at home! We’d have game nights every couple of days to recuperate after a long day and to enjoy each other’s company and just have fun playing charades and other games. The staff was very attentive and supportive when I became ill. They came to my room to check on me every hour or so. They’d offer to contact my parents for me and always made sure I had everything I needed to get better. I came to view my project supervisors as parental figures. There was not one moment I didn’t feel safe or supported under the guidance of the Project Abroad staff.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle of New York, you’ll occasionally find me closing my eyes. When I do, I vividly feel the elephant’s tough skin on my fingers, taste the handmade momos and visualize the beautiful, luscious green hills that seem to go on forever.
My experiences in Nepal have not only been cemented in my mind, but have truly changed me. I not only learned about the people and places of Nepal, but Nepal helped me learn about myself. As I delved deeper everyday into my work at the medical placements, I recognised the happiness I felt seeing patients leave less worried knowing they were going to be taken care of. I’m so grateful to Projects Abroad for enabling an opportunity such as this to exist for high school students; it has really brought aim and purpose to my life.