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Medicine in Nepal by Kate Shin

Visiting fabric shop

A month ago, “Nepal” conjured up nebulous maps of Asia and the vague notion it had something to do with the Himalayas. Today, after spending just two weeks there, I can explain, eloquently, why I would give anything to exchange my Californian suburban-teen life for a cramped Nepalese abode, all thanks to Projects Abroad.

At the beginning of summer, I was determined to somehow combine my love for travel and medicine into one package deal, so when I stumbled upon Projects Abroad, I pounced on the Two-Week Special Medical Program. I had no idea what I was getting into and I hadn’t really thought about the trip until I arrived at the airport in Nepal. I was immediately assaulted by the humidity, and with sweat pouring off my face, I was ushered into a van after meeting my group’s awesome leader, Henry.

As we passed green countryside with rivers littered with trash, neighborhoods with buildings more crowded and colorful than New York City, and cows roaming the streets, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had gotten myself into. I swallowed my anxiety though when I met all the other teens at the hotel.

Travelling in Nepal

As an anglophile and pretty much a “phile” of any place that is foreign, I was delighted to find that the group was filled with English, French, Canadian, Chinese, Polish, and Swiss kids, among others. I found myself in the company of other similarly nervous teenagers, but we were all excited for what was to come.

We dove into the medicine right away, just a couple days after we arrived. Basically, we would get assigned a different department every day, and for most of the morning and afternoon, we shadowed doctors or nurses in their activities. The constant rotation of departments exposed me to units like the ICU, Radiology, Orthopedics, Pediatrics, OB/GYN, Operation, Psychiatry, and Surgery. My involvement with patients was limited, especially because of my age and language barriers, but I listened and did whatever I could.

With Nepalese family

Because Nepal is a third-world Asian country, medicine is used only as a last resort because of the cost and for cultural reasons (while doctors are revered as almost “godlike,” medicine is seen as an invasion of the body’s natural processes), and so I saw patients with major afflictions. I remember a beautiful Nepalese teenage girl, newly married, in the ICU because of a poison suicide attempt that failed to kill her, her heavily-lashed eyes following the doctors silently around the room.

I remember the young woman from a nearby rural village in the Labor and Delivery, her back bowed with pain and sweat pouring off her face, which later smoothed as she held her newborn son. I remember the surgeons who struggled to quiet a toddler boy in the ER, trying to stave off sympathy, working as quickly as they could to minimize the time he had to spend on the operating table.

Despite their different language and clothing, the people in the hospital all had their own unique physical problems and were desperate to be rid of them, and so through that universal desire to be free of pain, I was able to build that first empathetic connection to the Nepalese people. The kindness they showed me—the patient explanations from the doctors, the curious questions from the nurses, and the people’s tolerance for us, the foreigners, in the first place—helped me turn empathy into appreciation and attachment. (The first Nepalese word I learned and used the most there was “dhanybhad,” which means “thank you.”)

Ready for surgery in Nepal

Although the medical system of Nepal is very different from America’s, my experience at the hospital only affirmed my aspiration to be a doctor. No matter the place, people need help, and being a doctor enables one to respond to their needs in the most fundamental physical way.

The High School Specials program offered the best of both the educational and experiential worlds. During the day, I learned through observation and lectures held at the hospital’s library. We even participated in a community outreach event, where we taught young children how to brush their teeth. During the evenings and nights, I was able to explore Nepal.

Throughout the two weeks, we stayed in multiple places in the cities Chitwan, which was a bit more rural, and Kathmandu, which was urban and tourist-oriented. I was with an amazing group and we all got along immediately, and we found things to do together every night. There were organized activities, hiking through forests, and for the other days, we were free to what we wanted.

Volunteers in Nepal

If we were tired, we hung out in our hotel rooms or at the pool. If not, we went out to shop or visit the local restaurants since the cities were safe. (Side note: if you want to learn how to haggle, Nepal is where you need to be.) Sometimes, when I feel particularly homesick for Nepal, I close my eyes and I imagine myself on the terrace of my favorite restaurant in Kathmandu, my group and I lounging around a table enjoying the night’s warm humid weather. It’s an intoxicating experience, to be in another country surrounded by people from all over the world with similar ambitions.

It’s hard to believe how much I changed because of a trip, but by the end of it, my resolve to become a doctor solidified, I fell in love with the Nepalese culture, I learned how to navigate through a foreign country, and I formed lifelong friendships—not bad for a couple of weeks.

I sincerely believe that programs such as Projects Abroad’s are invaluable because they offer all the benefits of travel, education, and volunteering. Because words are insufficient in articulating my gratitude, all I can simply say is dhanybhad Nepal and Projects Abroad for two of the most incredible weeks of my life.

Kate Shin

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