Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bhumlutar and beyond

I love Kathmandu. It's a complete sensory overload: the constant honking and roaring of engines as cars and motorbikes careen through the narrow, twisting streets; the tiny shops all crowded together where storekeepers follow you trying to make profit off of the foreigners (you can normally haggle them down about half the price); the bumpy roads whose potholes make William & Mary's crooked bricks look like pathways to heaven; the golden mum garlands hanging above doorways and the prayer flags fluttering in the air; the smell of momo's (dumplings) cooking on the street as well as the smell of butchered something laying skinned on a table outside of a store. Kathmandu is a stimulating city, no doubt about it. After a week of touring hospitals and exploring Thamel (the part of Kathmandu where we are staying), we left the comforts of city life and embarked on the next part of our Nepalese adventure: the medical camps.

I almost feel like the trip to Bhumlutar, the location of our first of two locations, deserves an entry of its own. We met our medical team of around forty people -- security guards, doctors, lab technicians, pharmacologists, and nurses from different hospitals headed and directed by Milan Gurung -- in Banepa where we loaded all our belongings and supplies for the next five days onto one bus and then proceeded to cram ourselves in as well. Every bus also has what is called a "conductor" who hangs out by the door to help guide the driver through more tricky spots. He, I would learn shortly, was invaluable to our journey. We left all evidence of civilization behind as we traveled up the mountains. Higher and higher, until I thought we couldn't go any higher, and still up we went. We left "paved" roads and learned what bumpy roads truly mean, and then left even the rocks and drove on crumbling dirt roads barely wide enough for our bus that was meant to be a two way road. The conductor would hang onto the side of the bus and whistle and bang on the door if the bus driver came too close to the edge of the road that dropped precipitously a thousand, two thousand, and eventually five thousand feet down when we came to our first village. Milan laughed and told us to imagine we were on a Disney ride and that he himself had been on bus rides where there were drops on either side of the road. It was the most realistic Disney ride of my life.

The local people prepared a welcoming ceremony of little bouquets of gold mums wrapped in delicate, pink leaves, filling our hands with these little flowers and calling out "Namaste" to us as we walked through a double line of waiting villagers. It was a warm welcome and a happy foreshadowing of the relationships we would eventually forge with them. The medical camp was being hosted at their school, which was on top of a little hill on the mountain, dwarfed by two larger plateaus, the first plateau about half the size of a tennis court and consisting of only one school building (a "building" being two rooms) and a very rough ping pong table (a cracked stone tablet help up on two more slabs of stone), and the second plateau the size of a full tennis court consisting of one more building and a bunch of benches that would serve as our dining tables. The climb up to the second plateau was a precarious one where you had to scramble your way up a very dusty hill with stone footholds few and far in between before you slid down, though the view from the top was reward in itself: on a clear day, we could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The medical camp set up straightaway, and villagers who had walked for hours to get there began to line up for screening and treatment (one elderly woman was carried in a basket for four hours). They would go to the nurses first who took basic measurements (weight, blood pressure, etc.) before directing them to the doctors (we had an eye doctor, a dentist, a general practitioner, and a pediatrician). Then, they would head to the "pharmacy" to get their prescribed medication.

When they had finished their visit, either Arati or Shrishti approached them about consenting to the interview that constituted our student research. We were attempting to find out their basic lifestyle and knowledge of healthcare to assess what the steps that we as students could take for a preventative approach (i.e.: a  major problem among women was uterine prolapse-- look it up-- which could be partially prevented with the right health education). These interviews were compelling, emotional, and very personal, as some poured out their life stories and worries of not being able to feed their children, barely having enough money to put food on the table twice a day (meat was a luxury afforded usually around once a month) let alone having enough money to receive the full treatments that they were in dire need of. In total, we conducted around thirty interviews and saw close to a thousand patients just in Bhumlutar.

Although our own personal comforts were not so comfortable (we didn't shower during the medical camps, no one wanting to brave the freezing cold water spurting out of an outdoor water spigot, and the toilets being little more than holes in the ground), it was worth it. We are not yet doctors, still just undergraduate students slowly working our way up, but the amount of change we could make for these people by putting together health education packets and classes and working with their health post is immeasurable. I feel like I've left out too many details that capture the essence of the village and its people we were privileged to meet, our day-to-day activities (where did we sleep? what did we eat? what did we do during our spare time? what was the weather like? This last one I can answer quickly: hot as long as the sun was up and then freezing cold, a curious sensation of being burned and frozen, over and over), and the general sense of camaraderie that permeated through the camp, but this blog post is already too long and it's time to leave to visit a temple in Bhoda during Professor Vose's last few days (whom I've also neglected to mention but whose presence has been priceless and much appreciated!). Besides, Ralph still has to blog and we have many, many photos to put up that will describe far more accurately everything I want to say so I'll cut myself off. Check the blog again for photos, they're amazing.

Joyce Oh

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