Volunteer stories : Kathleen J., Medicine in Nepal
When stepping into Kathmandu for the first time, I was completely unsure of what to expect. Certainly not the sudden flood of pedestrians, motorbikes and bicycles that continuously crowd the streets; nor the incessant honking of horns that are the Nepali alternative to a turn signal; nor the overwhelming combination of smells and colours that attack a newcomer’s senses.
No, I certainly did not expect these things – and found them feeding a burning curiosity to see and experience more of this crowded, sprawling city. With every new experience and moment I spent in Nepal, this curiosity grew. When I stepped off that plane into a country exactly half way around the world from my home, I never expected to come away with the shocking, precious and surreal memories that only a few short weeks with Projects Abroad granted me.
I went to Nepal as a 2-Week Special volunteer, though I stayed for a total of three weeks. The 2-Week Special programme is designed for 16 – 19 year olds, such as myself, and emphasises a particular field, in this case, medicine. Because it is directed towards high school students, transportation to and from placement was provided, as were daily and weekend activities, such as short treks and tours of Kathmandu’s architectural and anthropological gems.
There were two other students who also participated in the programme with me, and the three of us lived with a lovely host family in Patan. Nearly every day we had the opportunity to visit a different placement around the city. Such placements included hospitals - B&B, Alka and Kanti Children’s Hospital, as well as clinics – MSPN, clinic for children with HIV/AIDS and the clinic for malnourished children. This assortment of placements was ideal for someone with no medical knowledge, because we were able to experience different settings, from crowded hospitals to private clinics, and their respective practices.
In the hospitals, much of our time was devoted to observing the doctors and nurses in outpatient care or following them on their rounds, though we did have the extraordinary opportunity to watch surgery at Alka Hospital. Most of the doctors and nurses we encountered made a great effort at translating their conversations with their patients and explaining how medicine was practiced in Nepal.
From the onset, simple differences from the West, such as hygiene practices, struck my companions and me very hard. The manner in which one prepared for surgery at Alka Hospital did not compare with the strict rules of the West, nor did the wards and beds of B&B Hospital that seemed too crowded for proper health care to be possible. But perhaps most shocking was Kanti Children’s Hospital, where the smell of human excrement and chemicals penetrated the entire hospital and four to five children lay on a single bed in the Emergency Room.
Yet, despite these shocking and difficult sights, the most important things I brought away from this trip are not of the shock of a lack of proper hygiene or the pages and pages of case studies that were available to us. Rather it was the astonishment of experiencing a beautiful culture and the memories of the people I met there.
Months later I still remember the smiles of small, malnourished children and their screams of delight and laughter as they popped the bubbles we blew for them and filled colouring books, both luxuries they’d probably never had before. I remember the girls from the orphanage that teased me and tried to correct my pitiful Nepali. I remember the glint in the eye of a small child with cerebral palsy, as we praised and encouraged her to complete even the most menial task. I remember the little boy with HIV who was only too happy to plop down on my lap and say, “Photo didi?” as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
Those memories are the things that stood out most clearly as I prepared to leave Nepal, that I still see clearly in my mind’s eye, and that I will treasure for a lifetime.
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