The Super Heroes of Nepal

Venerable Metteyya and the nuns of Karuna School 

Venerable Metteyya and the nuns of Karuna School 

Two weeks in Nepal, two days of travel over 7,000 miles - I am happy to be home in San Francisco. As an outdoor enthusiast, I resonated with a quote from Lonely Planet's Nepal guide "while you first come to Nepal for the mountains, you return here for the people". I most certainly will be returning to Nepal for the people and I just might squeeze in a trek next time.

Exploring Nepal is not for the delicate traveler. The smog can do a number on the lungs, you need tissues for the encounter with the porcelain hole in the ground and you might be challenged with a stomach bug here and there. The flights aren't cheap and it takes a very long time to get there. Due to political challenges, India has placed a blockade on fuel coming into Nepal. This meant no heat in some of our hotels but for Nepalis it impacts their daily lives for cooking, heat and transport with outrageous lines at gas stations. We resorted to buying fuel on the black market, which can be up to three times the normal price.

Practicing patience as we wait for fuel

Practicing patience as we wait for fuel

I had the added adventure of losing my luggage early in the trip. We literally watched it fly off the roof of the van while we in it. We turned around within minutes and it was scooped up by someone likely dealing with the economic hardship of post earthquake Nepal. I got a lesson in letting go and in return, I received a stylish wardrobe from my new friends.

Attempting to fit in with all the sweet nuns

Attempting to fit in with all the sweet nuns

I have never been surrounded by more productive people committed to improving the lives of others. As health care providers we often reap the benefits of feeling the impact we have with patients. Now imagine that ten fold. When I mentioned to Cornelia, the founder of Anatta that I climbed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, she had also done that but only after building toilets for the indigenous people. So it should be no surprise to me that in addition to working full time as a neuropsychologist, sometimes talking to patients during an awake craniotomy, she created a non-profit called Anatta World Health and Education Outreach. Anatta is like an octopus with tentacles reaching out and sending love to the people of Nepal. 

Susan, Debra and Cornelia

Susan, Debra and Cornelia

When Cornelia's team at Anatta partners up with Bodhi Sakyadhita's team at CEBA and Venerable Metteyya, they are a serious force to be reckoned with. A monk usually lives a peaceful life meditating in a monastery supported by the community. Ven. Metteyya is part monk, part super hero. With a soft spoken voice, a smile as wide as Nepal and a gentle disposition, he ingratiates everyone he encounters. This dynamic trio is committed to improving the lives of the people of Nepal, with a strong emphasis on health and education. Many children complete school at grade 6 in Nepal. Traditional Nepal culture does not value education for girls, leaving few opportunities for girls, in which they are arranged to marry young while others are bought into human trafficking or prostitution. Through Anatta, these children have the opportunity to go to college.

Bodhi and The Karuna School girls welcome us

Bodhi and The Karuna School girls welcome us

This year, four young women will graduate as auxiliary Nurse Midwives. I had the honor to work with them and share stories of preeclampsia, hemorrhage and c-sections. I told them of a trend in San Francisco in which women eat the placenta and they shared that some villagers put cow dung on their babies umbilical cords - something they are educating the villagers to change and hopefully improve infant mortality.

Donna, Cornelia and Debra

Donna, Cornelia and Debra

In addition to the medical and dental clinic, CEBA sponsored a vet clinic and treated local street animals. We also had the opportunity to see the continued efforts of earthquake relief through Global Karuna  during the catastrophic earthquake last April, which killed over 8,000 people. I learned how complicated rescue efforts were due to red tape created by the Nepali government, the UN and so called disaster relief experts as they debated over who would win the contract - all while people were dying under rubble. 

Venerable Metteyya coordinating the rescue of nuns in a remote mountain village

Venerable Metteyya coordinating the rescue of nuns in a remote mountain village

While the quake was nine months ago, the rescue efforts are far from over. As a Westerner, we thought we were troopers wearing our wool hats to bed and snuggling up with a hot water bottle. An unheated hotel is quite a bit warmer than living on the side of the road in a tent village. There is much more work needed to be done and we can be part of that solution.

If you feel called to help in the continued earthquake relief, you can donate through Global Karuna here

If you are like me and appreciate the freedom your country affords you to be educated and marry who you want, when you want and if you want and you would like to support the work of Anatta through training nurses, building a community hospital, supporting education of boys and girls or supporting an orphanage, you can donate through Anatta here

Come join Anatta next year, make deep friendships and cry all the way home!

Come join Anatta next year, make deep friendships and cry all the way home!

Cornelia putting Anatta to good use during a medical clinic in Lumbini, Nepal

Cornelia putting Anatta to good use during a medical clinic in Lumbini, Nepal

Black Friday And The REI Approach

We are officially in the thick of the holiday season. The elf is on the shelf; Christmas music is on the radio and Black Friday kicked off the holiday shopping frenzy. Some people heeded a different call, the call to opt out of shopping and get outside.

REI, an outdoor clothing and gear store locked the doors on one of the busiest shopping days of the year to give employees an extra paid day off to spend with family and friends. State parks in California, Colorado, Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, Massachusetts and Minnesota offered free or reduced entry. It sure sounds more relaxing than risking life for a bargain deal at Walmart. Our life consists of precious human days and we have no idea how many days we get to live. We do have some influence on how we spend our days and the precious moments within those days.

I worked at the hospital this Thanksgiving and Black Friday but I managed to get outside and enjoy the beautiful full moon. Throughout the remainder of the holiday season, when life feels a bit stressful, remember this message and head outside. Turn off the phone, look up, feel the world around you and breathe.

Death and All Souls

My Uncle Eugene with my grandmother

My Uncle Eugene with my grandmother

Death was not a taboo topic in my house growing up. As a child, I experienced a lot of loss, particularly on my mother's side of the family. Her brother was a Catholic priest in New Mexico and he died of melanoma on All Saints Day. He was taken far too young in his early 40's but there was something special about a priest dying on All Saints Day.

All Souls Day or All Saints Day is a day of reflection and remembrance of those that have passed before us. For most of us, it is just the day after Halloween as we face the challenge of managing all the candy in the house. This weekend I spent Halloween and All Souls Day away at wedding.

The topic of death showed up in the ceremony in a very organic way. As they shared stories of their path to find each other, it was revealed that the groom had been critically ill from carbon monoxide poisoning after arriving in China a few years ago. The year of recovery after the incident allowed for his life to slow down and redirect him on a new path that would bump him into his bride.

As Nurses, we are all too familiar with society's desire to turn away from the reality of death and dying. We hold a lot for our patients and families. Today, take a moment an honor the lives that have passed before you. Then more importantly, take a moment and honor yourself for the important work you do to hold the space for the conversations, the grief and the healing that takes place.

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AIDS PHYSICIAN'S GRACEFUL RECOVERY

There’s nothing like a movie that pulls us into life’s tragedies to demonstrate the resilience of the human heart; Movies such as Life Is Beautiful, Little Miss Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire and as of this weekend, States of Grace.

My coworker and I were fortunate enough to meet Grace and Sabrina at a screening in San Francisco.

My coworker and I were fortunate enough to meet Grace and Sabrina at a screening in San Francisco.

States of Grace invites us into the life of pioneering AIDS specialist, Dr. Grace Dammann as she recovers from a near fatal head-on collision on The Golden Gate Bridge. Grace was in a coma for 7 weeks, incurred 17 broken bones, 9 surgeries and a year in rehab.

We witness her courage, setbacks, frustrations and ultimately her reluctant acceptance of being disabled. Prior to the accident this physician, like many nurses was the caretaker in the family, managing the needs of their daughter born with cerebral palsy. Like many family systems faced with hardships, this brought a significant shift to the roles of everyone in the family. The primary caretaker was now the one being cared for. It’s impossible not to fall in love with all three characters, Grace, her partner Fu and daughter Sabrina as they navigate these new identities.

The movie beautifully portrays the vulnerability, strength and courage of this family to meet each moment as it comes in a very real way without sugar coating it and it is all done with a brilliant sense of humor.

As I watched this film, I couldn’t help recall my Aunt Lilly’s recovery when her legs were crushed by a tractor-trailer as she crossed the street in New York City. The struggles she faced were insurmountable, she never walked again and she died five months after the accident.

I was also reminded of my six-month recovery when I was hit by a truck while riding my bicycle, and the challenges I faced in a body cast, recovering from a broken back. Up until that point, I had taken my body for granted. I wondered if my back would recover for me to return to work as a nurse at the bedside. I was fortunate to have had a complete recovery, (effortless in comparison to Grace's story) and I certainly learned to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

In Grace, I also saw my parents who have dedicated their lives to providing and caring for their children, yet, with the impact of aging and illness, feeling the burden of being dependent on others. In Fu, I could see my siblings finding the strength, patience, and resilience to provide care even when it’s not so pretty and finding a way to laugh along the way. Everyone should see this film!

Watch a clip from States of Grace

You can see the film in San Francisco until 4/30 at The Vogue Theater  or you can see the film near you in San Rafael, CA,  Portland, OR, Toronto, Chapel Hill or Maine  

"I learned that nothing lasts forever - including great pain, great sorrow and great helplessness" - Grace Dammann MD