On 25 April 2015, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 9000 people and injuring more than 23,000. In fifty seconds, entire villages were wiped out, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. On Everest, a landslide killed 19 people, making it the deadliest day in the history of the mountain. A further 120 were reported injured or missing.
On 12 May, just 17 days later, a second earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 struck the already ravaged country, killing a further 153 people and injuring 2500 more. It is estimated that over 450,000 people were displaced by the two major quakes and subsequent aftershocks. Hospitals that remained standing were surrounded by the injured and dying, waiting for one of the handful of overworked and sleep-deprived medical staff to see them, although with limited power and supplies, not much beyond basic first aid could be achieved for the general masses. And these were the lucky few who were able to travel to a hospital.
When an already severely poor country such as Nepal is decimated by such a major tragedy, the short term medical emergencies are soon swamped in scale by monstrous longterm issues. The unchecked spread of communicable disease, lack of internal infrastructure, contaminated water and of course, limited road access and the constant and desperate supply of food to tens of thousands who have lost everything they owned and frequently their sole family breadwinners, provide incessant conundrums for the government and foreign aid workers.
Six months on from the quakes, Nepal still has much rebuilding ahead, with reduced tourist numbers during what is supposed to be its busy season economically hampering attempts to rebuild. Prior to the quake it was estimated that one quarter of the Nepalese population lived below the poverty line. That figure is now a great deal larger. Country-wide fuel shortages are making transport difficult and expensive, with a growing black market and increasing desperation seeing a surge in crime. With the world’s eyes no longer focused on the ongoing crisis and the foreign aid spent, quality medical care is again available only to the lucky few who are able to access it.
Charities such as Ausnep continue to supply volunteer medical professionals to remote locations where villagers otherwise would be unable to access it. Dentistry in particular is desperately needed, with oral health remaining in the top five of most neglected health services in Nepal. Untreated oral disease is Nepal’s most prevalent childhood illness, exceeding even malnutrition. 69% of Nepalese adults over 50 suffer from oral disease, making it one of the most widespread and the least treated health crises in the country. With one local dentist per 20,000 people in Nepal, travelling dental camps are heavily relied upon by those in more remote locations.
In August of 2015, some Gold Coast nurses set out with Ausnep in what was to be a life-changing expedition. Margaret Cole (“Flo”), Carol King (“Captain”), Eloise Crean (“Delicious”) and Lisa “Loopy” Kiddle – also a founder of Ausnep – made up the awesome foursome. Travelling with a team of 14 Nepalese dental staff, including two dentists, two dental hygienists and ten staff, these four women assisted in over 922 treatments provided in just six days. Natalie O’Driscoll spoke with first time volunteer Eloise Crean about their experience.
How did the camps actually work?
When we arrived in Nepal we went straight to a hotel in Thamel in Kathmandu. We then spent nearly a whole day heading out to the first remote village Dura Danda and we camped in tents that the Sherpas set up prior to our arrival. They stayed with us the whole time and dismantled our tents and set them up again at the next village we ventured out to, Duerali.
We went in monsoon season so the days were hot and sticky despite the altitude that we were at. In both villages we were given small rooms to deliver our treatments attached to a local doctor’s office. At the camp we had two sterilising machines that were constantly rotating the limited amount of tools and instruments we had to deliver treatments to the massive amount of patients that had walked for miles to see us. This process was interrupted by the ongoing power outages that Nepal experiences constantly. Some power outages can last more than 10 hours so its really important to keep a positive attitude and go with the flow. When a power outage happened (about 20 times a day), our dentist would venture outside and do extractions or examinations. The fillings waited until power returned.
Can you tell us about some of the people you helped?
Some people walked over four hours to access free dental treatment from remote villages because it may be the only time they ever could.
For me I think the most touching story was that of a mother of two who dropped her children off to school the morning of the earthquake to never have them return home. They were killed at school in the earthquake. There were many many people sharing their stories openly with you about how they were affected and who they knew were affected or killed. But this woman and her story really hit home.
Having the experiences I did taught me that the Nepalese people never take anything for granted and are always happy and loving despite what traumatic circumstances unfold. They do not become bitter, angry or harsh but instead embrace peace, calm and happiness. They don’t see daily life as a struggle but as a gift. They band together to support their loved ones in need. They have given me an amazing lesson in gratitude. I learnt so much more about myself and my coping mechanisms and how I should be living my life while in Nepal as time went on. You can’t help but be touched and moved by this group of amazing human beings who we should all try to be more like with their attitudes and outlook on life. How much better would we be.
What were some of the personal dangers you had to be aware of?
While I was in Nepal I was very fortunate not to have experienced anything bad. It’s the same as anywhere you go – you just be safe and careful with your personal belongings and always have situational awareness. One night while sleeping the locals were banging and clanging pots and pans. At first I thought they were having a party Nepalese style but then in the morning I was informed that there had been a tiger in the camp!
What are the main impressions you will carry with you?
Nepal and its people affected me in a way that I could never have imagined possible. I found the people to be everything I wish to become. They treat you like you are family and you cannot help but grow attached to those you encounter. Every village you go to they want you to come and have tea in their home with the family and feel like you are loved and treated as one of their own. They do not judge or think twice about allowing you to come into their lives and traditions. We had girls in the village dancing for us in their traditional ways and on the last night in one of the villages they sat in the rain and played traditional instruments and sang for us so we danced up a storm in the mud and I have never been so happy in my life.
My fiancé and I are now sponsoring a child whose family I have grown to love like my own. I am headed back and booked in for March next year with Ausnep and then again in October 2016 for my wedding. I miss Nepal and the people every day and am counting the days until I can get back. Until then I plan to take the lessons I have learnt through this amazing place and its people and become a better version of me.
You can learn more about volunteering in Nepal at aus-nep.com