Medical Volunteers are urgently needed now in Nepal Jun 24th 2015

Disaster relief drama

The April 25th earthquake provoked an international response from countries all over the world. Everyone knew that Kathmandu was overdue for an earthquake, and planning had taken place quietly. The western countries responded with a huge airlift. Hundreds of teams of foreign search-and-rescue teams came, as well as specialized groups of urban rescue dog handlers, looking for bodies in the rubble. Major NGOs arrived with supplies of all kinds. It wasn’t perfect but it was impressive.

Along with all these people came the international press. The news people were looking for total devastation such as took place in Port-au-Prince Haiti in 2010 where 100,000 people died. Sanjay Gupta, a celebrity doctor, did brain surgery at Bir Hospital. The media from India went on every helicopter, crowding out the victims who also needed those same rescue flights.

Journalist job number one: report what you see, not what the people want to see

But this particular earthquake had a flavor all it’s own, and after a few days some of the local journalists wrote about the hype from international media.  Yes, the were fatalities. Almost ten thousand. Yes, the major monuments were affected. But the vast majority of casualties were in the rural areas – this is a very rural country, eighty percent of people live in small towns and villages. The response after the initial period was more focused on the logistics of reaching people in roadless areas. Not anywhere near as dramatic. There were many examples of Nepali people who mounted their own do-it-yourself relief operations, which was amazing and awakened a sense of national pride that seemed to be dormant.

I was in the country at the time of the quake, though not in Kathmandu. That very day my blog started to receive hits on the entries inviting nurses to volunteer here. For a while I was getting 800 hits a day. My advice? don’t come. You’ll get in the way.

I still think it’s important for nurses and doctors to prepare as much as possible before making a trip here. But my advice has now changed. Yes, do come.

For your first trip to the country, my advice is to join a group and go on a trek if you are able. This suggestion may surprise you; if you are an acute-care adrenaline junkie you may have the idea of doing brain surgery on day one, like Sanjay Gupta did.

Um, hate to break it to you, but – Esteemed celebrity Doctor Gupta is not the role model you should emulate. You may be surprised to find that nurses and doctors in Nepal are pretty smart and well-trained in many ways. (and, you need a Nepali license to practice, here.)

I myself used to not respect  the so-called “medical treks” offered by some tour groups. Why? because the medical component was not “hard core.” For example, there was one group run by a nurse from USA who also was a marathon runner. They did 15 miles a day – a forced march for those who might not be in the best fitness. The trek they offered  was billed as a medical tour but they never  visited a hospital, for example, or met with any local nurses or doctors until I gave them some contact names. The medical part boiled down to handing out toothbrushes and sample packs of antibiotics as they hiked through villages. This approach creates “dependency” among the people served by the trekkers. Likewise, I used to wonder when I saw such groups as Habitat for Humanity, bringing westerners to Nepal to build houses. Nepali people are perfectly capable to build their own shelter, thank you very much.

I am modifying my attitude. I think that anything to get Americans/Europeans/westerners out of their comfort zone and travel is good. And I re-evaluate Habit for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity, for example, is not just about carpentry – it’s about having a cultural exchange under the umbrella of leaving something behind that is tangible. AHA! Now I get it.

Having said that, you do need to choose a tour group or trek wisely. More on that later.

As to what motivates you? Click here to watch a video from Aloha Medical Missions, friends of mine from Hawaii.

Adventure Travel? group tour? beach vacation?

People have different styles of travel, and if the only way they can step out and explore the planet is to go with a group, that is what they should do. (warning: if your travel style focuses on taking small kids to the beach, you will be disappointed. Nepal is eight hundred miles from the ocean)

When I returned to the Kathmandu Valley in late May, just before my year in Nepal was up, the first thing I noticed was that most of it was intact. The main missing ingredient was the tourists. How can this help recovery? I asked myself. The obvious answer was, if tourists stay away, recovery will be delayed. And so I am joining those who are saying, now is a great time to visit Nepal.

What’s there and what’s not

if you go, you will still find friendly people, an amazing local culture, and breathtaking scenery. You will meet a wide cross-section of locals – from highly cosmopolitan citizens to members of ethnic groups that live off the land much as people did four hundred years ago. The cultural and spiritual opportunities are life-changing. you won’t be the same person.


Here’s a link to a travel blog titled Tips for First Time Travellers to Nepal.

What’s  not there are – some of the monuments. Frankly, the majority of tourists would do a whirlwind tour of the monuments but not stop to savor each one. The culture surrounding the monuments is undamaged. Buddhist, Hindu, Tibetan, Newari – the people are still celebrating festivals and life events.

Using your skills

Yes, I am saying Go there first just to trek. You will fall in love. The rest of your contribution, from a medical viewpoint, can be meaningful and important. But you will do better if you stop and smell the incense.

The Bottom line

There are many ways a foreign medical person can contribute in Nepal, and I invite you to study the 150 previous entries in this blog  to find examples. if In a future blog I will give my specific list of suggested ways you can help medical development in Nepal, as well a some specific Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that might work with you.



About Joe Niemczura, RN, MS

These blogs, and my books, and videos are written on the principle that any person embarking on something similar to what I do will gain more preparation than I first had, by reading them. I have fifteen years of USA nursing faculty background. Add to it fifteen more devoted to adult critical care. In Nepal, I started teaching critical care skills in 2011. I figure out what they need to know in a Nepali practice setting. Then I teach it in a culturally appropriate way so that the boots-on-the-ground people will use it. One theme of my work has been collective culture and how it manifests itself in anger. Because this was a problem I incorporated elements of "situational awareness" training from the beginning, in 2011.
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