A 7.8 magnitude earthquake strikes at 11:56 am (local time), with its epicenter in the Lamjung district northwest of Kathmandu. It is the most powerful and deadly disaster to affect Nepal since the 1934 Nepal–Bihar earthquake.
I and fellow Tansen physician Josh Riggsbee are asked by our organization, United Mission to Nepal (UMN) to join a team from International Nepal Fellowship (INF), as they arrange to travel to Gorkha at the invitation of the Nepali Government. Gorkha is a rural district in north-central Nepal very near the epicenter, and was heavily affected by Saturday’s earthquake. Other initial local and international disaster response teams begin to arrive on the scene.
We meet up at 5 am with the 10-person INF medical response team led by Ekadev Devkota and Thomas Meier and head by jeep to Gorkha. In the seat next to me, media correspondent Matt Darvas is telephoning a near-constant news feed of on-the-ground information to BBC, CNN and other major news sources. This is an entirely new perspective for me on reporting, and I’ve certainly never envisioned being on this end of news coverage.
We conduct some initial triage assessments and set up outdoor medical clinics at two different villages a few hours’ drive from Gorkha Bazaar, Pokharidanda and Mailun, where we see and treat some 400 patients among four general physicians.
We spend the night tenting in a large makeshift tarp tent at the Gorkha Army Camp.
Following a meeting with our team leaders and local government healthcare officials, a decision is made to send a team via helicopter to a more remote part of Gorkha for further medical care and critical assessment, with instructions to trek back out. I and Josh Riggsbee, a friend and fellow Tansen physician, are selected to go. Bags hastily packed, we are on our way to the helipad within twenty minutes, where it then takes three hours to coordinate an available helicopter. While waiting there, we are questioned by reporters from the Financial Times, Associated Press, Du Monde and The Guardian. Once again it occurs to me that I have never in my life imagined a moment like this actually happening.
At 1:15 pm we lift off, accompanied by a Nepali reporter and one young woman trying to get back to the village to which we are headed. Her name is Urmila, and she will prove invaluable to us in navigating the intricacies of her village’s culture and decision-making. En route, as we fly over mountains so mammoth they make Palpa’s ridges seem like rolling hills, we note aerial views of village after village that appear totally leveled by the quake.
Due to rough weather and poor visibility, our adept pilot is forced to stop mid-route on top of a mountain (literally, landing on the flat ridge of a cliff) where we wait out an alarmingly gusty thunderstorm. After an hour conditions have improved such that the flight can resume, and shortly thereafter we reach our destination, landing on a terrace cut into the side of an almost-vertical mountain on which rests the village of Keraunja, perched at a lofty 7000-foot elevation. Standing there, face to face with seventy or so villagers with burlap sacks over their heads to shield themselves from the rain, we realize that there is physically nowhere to go to get out of the downpour. Every standing structure has been literally decimated.
Eventually a decision is made by some of the villagers to bring us up to the site where the Keraunja health post had previously stood; it had been the only health post in a six hour radius (walking, of course; roads and vehicles do not exist in this sort of terrain). We connect with the local village healthcare worker, Samjhana – an extremely bright, competent young woman with excellent medical & managerial skills – and we evaluate several medical patients together, seeking to fully affirm and reinforce her standing as a healthcare authority in the community.
Growing increasingly concerned about the situation, as we are told that there are no longer any open overland routes and the landslide risk remains high, we re-evaluate our exit strategy. However, without cellphone service and dwindling battery power, we are unable to make contact with the base team in Pokhara. We are told that there is cell reception an hours’ walk up the mountain, so we plan to head there first thing in the morning with Urmila and her brother.
As noted, it is raining and there is minimal shelter to speak of; we are unsure if/ where we will spend the night. Noting the contents of our helicopter’s airlift drop, we are thrilled beyond words to see kits from USAID, complete with tarps, mats and blankets. (Never in my life have I had an even remotely desperate need – nor have I ever been so relieved – to see that USAID logo.) I almost giggle with relief; the contents of this plastic sack mean we will not have to sleep out with the leeches in the mud and rain. (We are seriously concerned about this being a realistic possibility, given that there is literally no other place to lay down). After a small meal of dal bhat (rice and lentils) cooked by a few of the women over an open fire, we take our places with the rest of the family under the tarp, arranged in a long row, and try to get some sleep.
At 6 am we hike up the mountain ridge as planned and manage to establish our first contact with the rest of the INF team in Gorkha Bazaar, as well as our families. We alert them of the situation and request helicopter evacuation for ourselves and three additional injured patients. From the ridge, we are asked by a few villagers to trek to another village an hour further down the mountain for medical care.
After seeing two more patients with fairly severe crush injuries from rockfall and determining their need for medical evacuation, we are startled to see an Indian Army helicopter circling for a landing in the valley below us. Realizing that they can have no possible way of knowing we are there, we race (literally, running) down the mountain to catch them before they drop supplies and leave. It’s a challenge to communicate meaningfully while a military chooper-blade is cranking overhead, but somehow we get the message across about five additional injured patients, and pick them up in stages from the two villages. Along with a group of stranded Nepali trekkers, we begin the journey back to Pokhara and arrive back on terra firma at 12:30 pm, less than twenty four hours after taking off from Gorkha Bazaar. It feels like a year.
Throughout this entirely surreal, even bizarre space of time, I felt myself being pulled to and fro between two emotional poles – on the one hand, very real fears and concerns for my physical safety in the midst of this crisis situation, but on the other hand a sense that I was utterly, completely, solidly held in the hand of an Almighty God – abandoned, quite literally, to His care alone. It was a time of needing to rest in Scriptures like Psalm 91 and Isaiah 43, words that I was thankful to have stored away in years past. It was also a time of trusting that He who had called me to this place, preparing me with the skills and language needed to serve Him there, would remain present with me come what may. As my friend Lori just reminded me, “For such a time as this…”
Next: An assessment of the critical situation in rural Gorkha