| June 27, 2019

Modern Day Florence Nightingale

Modern Day Florence  Nightingale
Dipti Thapaliya, a nurse at New York City's Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital, felt compelled to fly home to Nepal when she heard of the devastating earthquake. She landed in Kathmandu within a few days to assist medical teams working in the most critically affected regions. Dipti was determined to make a difference, and reached out to many aid organizations with operations in Nepal through Facebook and email.

"There was so much death and destruction in Nepal that I couldn't just stay in New York. As a nurse, I came here as fast as I could," Dipti said. She traveled to Barpak in Gorkha district with the 'W Foundation', a Korean aid organization. She spent a week treating earthquake victims at a health camp there.

But when she returned to Kathmandu, there was a problem. She learned that the aid organization she was scheduled to help next had unexpectedly suspended operations in Nepal. She didn't know why, but understood that she couldn't change this fact. But she didn't give up hope. "I turned to Facebook and my friend circle for connections to other medical operations in Nepal," she said.

Late one night on Facebook, Dipti stumbled upon the JRM Foundation's earthquake relief efforts. The foundation is led by Dr Fahim Rahim, MD FASN, nephrologist from Idado, USA. Dr Rahim had visited Nepal several times in the past decade, and is an avid supporter of social initiatives that keep children in school, including the "Bricks to Books" program by the Little Sister's Fund.

Dr Rahim was scheduled to trek up to the Mount Everest Base Camp in early May, but after the earthquake, he changed his plans to lead a medical team instead. The JRM Foundation is one of the largest private American relief efforts in Nepal, with crowd-sourced funds through the online platform, Crowd Rise.

Looking through the photos and videos that Dr Rahim had shared on his Facebook page of their operations in Sindupalchowk District, Dipti learned on their partnership with the Dhulikhel Hospital.

She messaged Dr Rahim who instantly knew that Dipti would be a valuable asset to an overworked medical team in Sindupalchowk District. She boarded a chartered helicopter to assist Dhulikhel Hospital's satellite Health Clinic in Manekharka village.

"I had no clue what to expect in Manekharka," she said. Dipti had grown up in Kathmandu, but had never visited remote areas of Nepal. Manekharka is situated high up in the mountains in Sindupalchowk District, with a breathtaking view of the snowcapped Panch Pokhari mountain. It's still accessible by road, but traffic is frequently stalled due to landslides along the way.

"The first night at Manekharka was the scariest," Dipti said. She was crammed in a tent with four members of the medical team. "It was dark, there was no cell phone signal and we were all nervous and anxious about a potential aftershock." She took a little bite of the Dairy Milk chocolate bar she had brought with her. It was all the "luxury" she had for the week, yet she shared it with her new team.

Dipti treated earthquake related injuries in Manekharka, and also prescribed medicines for diarrhea, dysentery, vomiting and allergies. Dipti couldn't believe that a small medical team had treated over 1,000 villagers from across Sindupalchowk in the first few days after the earthquake.

"There was a nurse by the name Anju who gave 30 patients stitches on the day of the earthquake. That's a lot of stitches," she said. Despite tough challenges, the medical team had worked around the clock every single day. They were operating from a tent because one of their buildings had collapsed, while the other had severe cracks.

According to the government, the Sindupalchowk District suffered the most deaths in the earthquake. More than 3,500 people lost their lives, while 1,500 more were injured. Manekharka and the surrounding villages in Sindupalchowk District were severely affected by the earthquake and continue to suffer from the aftershocks. Most of the houses in Manekharka were built out of stone and glued together by mud. They didn't stand a chance against the magnitude 7.8 earthquake, and the strong aftershocks. The mountainside is scarred with dozens of landslides as well.

"People have lost so much. Almost everyone I met had lost a family member in the earthquake, their homes were gone, and they were plagued with nightmares and post-earthquake stress," said Dipti.

Dipti further explains how after another long day in Manekharka, she and the rest of the medical team were unwinding in their tent, when the ground under their feet started to shake. It was pitch dark as the team grabbed their flashlights and stumbled out of their tents. Tragedy befell the villagers when thunder and lightning lit up the night sky, and it started to pour down on the village.

"Everyone had a difficult time falling asleep that night, as we would near little explosions, which were actually landslides being triggered in the mountains around us," she said.

During her time at Manekharka, Dipti got to know the people of the village, not just as a nurse but as a friend too. She spoke cheerfully about Tenzin, a young boy who loves to sing. Tenzin had adapted the popular Nepali folk song "Paan ko paat" to include earthquake references – "Paan ko paat bhuichala le satayo din ko raat jaminai tharara."

Besides treating wounds, broken bones, infections, and playing with the kids, Dipti also battled village rumors that the earthquake would cause all pregnant women to have miscarriages and that they should get abortions immediately.

After a week in Manekhaka, she returned to Kathmandu. "I was so happy to be sleeping in a real bed, and listening to my music. But I missed my team in Manekharka," she said. After a few days in Kathmandu, she traveled to a medical camp in Ramechhap District for another week with a different relief organization.

To save lives and be of some help to the earthquake victims, Dipti sacrificed all her vacation time for this year. Her request for unpaid leave of absence from Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital was denied so she is back in New York City now, but she continues to keep a close eye on the situation in Nepal.

"I hope to be back soon," she says.

Sharma is a freelance journalist and entrepreneur.

Twitter @amrit_sharma