Rock Climber/Nurse in Nepal: “The Outlook is Bleak”

It’s an unnerving feeling when solid ground ceases to be such. As I sprawled out on floor in front of the baggage carousel number two, my head rested on my carry-on bag. The metal drum of my stethoscope protruded uncomfortably from the depths of the bag, marring my attempts at sleep. I was trying in vain to capitalize on any moment of shut eye to fill the gap the last two weeks had left: Post night shift, post 12 consecutive 12-hour shifts, and post 24 hours of travel. I had just arrived from Nasiriya, Iraq, where my team, the Novick Cardiac Alliance, and I had worked nonstop for the previous 13 days assisting the Nasiriyan Heart Center to carry out more than two dozen pediatric heart surgeries and complete the complicated care the children require afterwards.

Even with my eyes closed, I noticed the power go out. Peeling my lead-laden, sleep deprived eyelids back, I saw people running. It was only then that I felt the undulation. The rolling. The floor I laid on became like a small rowboat being tossed in the wake of passing ship.

Welcome to Kathmandu. Almost exactly 24 hours before the magnitude 6.7 aftershock rippled through my weary body on the floor of the red brick Tibhuvan International Airport, Nepal had been hit with its worst earthquake since 1934. My arrival so quickly after the mountainous nation’s worst disaster in more than 80 years was not in response to the earthquake, however. I had been planning for months to study pediatric eye care at the world-renowned Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Kathmandu. I was in for a change of plans.

The chalky smell of burning bone reaches my nose. It’s an odor I’ve become accustomed to over the years I’ve spent working around heart surgery. As a surgeon wields the surgical saw through the chest bone to expose the red, beating heart, the room brims with the sharp stench of hot metal on bone. But today, I am not in an operating theatre. And what reaches my nose has a more fleshy quality on top of the familiar smell. Cremation. Walking to my residence from the airport takes me through the Pashupati Temple where a large number of the earthquake’s first casualties are being cremated simultaneously. The smoke from the pyres rises up over the holy Bagmati River, and a subtle breeze transports the smoke to me.

As I navigate through the congested open-air temple, I can hear wailing. “Mamma! Mamma!” A dense crowded of Nepalis obscure the mourner. For 40 minutes, I walk through the unusually carless streets of Kathmandu. What normally would be busy arteries, clotted with diesel, smoke-spewing trucks and whizzing, erratic, horn-happy scooters, is now only pedestrians carrying bedrolls. Any open space contains people assembling bright orange and blue tarp shelters. The heart of Nepal had stopped beating.

Passing the occasional toppled building, I see a pattern emerge. Contrary to the global media outlets reports of a decimated Kathmandu, I see the majority of buildings still standing. The newer ones survived. Their rebar-enforced concrete and fresh red bricks kept those structures intact.

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The homes and stores and temples built purely of the ancient, aging earthen clay lay crumpled. The inner workings of a family’s home life are exposed to the streets, like a heart to the surgeon. People stand together in close groups around those that have collapsed. Many snap photos on the their phones.

Since the earthquake, I have visited local hospitals and heard the desperate call for supplies. I’ve traveled to some of the neighboring towns around Kathmandu and seen the disproportionate amount of damage that the poor areas have suffered. Reports from my climbing friends in Langtang tell of an entire town leveled by the quake and then wiped away forever by avalanche. I’ve visited the tourist hub town of Pokhara. Far enough from the quakes epicenter, it was almost easy to forget that Nepal is a nation in crisis. The aftershocks have dwindled, but the rain replaces them, on and off. On and off. Diseases from lack of adequate sanitation and access to clean water, food, and shelter are the next concerns. From the airstrip of Kathmandu’s airport, helicopters land to unload patients and depart again carrying supplies. But it isn’t fast enough. Supplies have stacked up. Helicopters and medical and rescue teams sit idly by as the bureaucracy all too slowly organizes and allows the life-saving aid to circulate and revive the struggling country. The outlook is bleak.

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