I received a phone call last night. Not just any phone call but from Nepal, a place dear to my heart. A place I love – the beautiful and humble people, the exotic culture, the simplicity of life, and the mountains! I don’t mean just any mountains but THE MOUNTAINS, the mountains of all mountains, the Himalayans, with Everest towering above them all! Now, Nepal is fighting for its very existence in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake. Does catastrophic even come close to describe the situation that currently exists? I do not have the gift of metaphor to create in one’s mind what is now the rubble that is Kathmandu or the hundreds of once picturesque mountain villages now buried beneath “mountains” of boulders, dirt - homes shattered, buried; homes in which they were born, raised families and then eventually would die, but not on that fateful day! How many more “thousands” of men, women, children, entire families, are yet to be accounted for and the worst feared scenario becoming a reality!
I have led many medical missions to Nepal. I have walked the tiny, narrow streets of Kathmandu filled with throngs of people on foot, bike or motorcycle. Only the tiniest cars can pass through them. All around and above you are indescribable tangle mazes of electrical wiring of every description running from one building to another! Many buildings look as if they could collapse at any time. Yet, you walk shoulder to shoulder with this mass of humanity, feeling trapped, confined and wondering “what if…?” The “what if” happened. I can see, smell, taste, touch and hear all that is Kathmandu! What a place! The most exotic city in the world as far as I am concerned but now….
The phone call! It was from Fahad, whom I have known since my first mission to Nepal in 2009. I have grown to love him deeply since that time. He was one of 3 young Nepali physicians, fresh out of their first post-medical school training year who volunteered to serve with us. Two were Hindi and one Muslim, Fahad. They knew we were a Christian organization yet they still wanted to help us however they could. I welcomed them with open arms as did the entire team and in the ensuing week we grew to love them deeply, but especially Fahad.
We worked hard every day seeing over 4000 patients in a little less than 5 days! We were a small team as well with only 12 Americans, 4 of who were medical providers and then the 3 Nepali physicians. Seven health care providers, 4000 + patients and so much need! Every morning we would arrive at our makeshift clinic, a tiny one room church whose pastor we were there to support, to find “the line” as we called it. A line of 500, 600 or more people most of whom had either walked all night, rode by donkey or came in an oxcart filled with hay traveling hours or even days to see the “American Doctors” who could fix anything, at least they believed so. Few had ever seen a physician in their lifetime. If you get sick there, one of three things happen – you get well on your own, you recover but with residual often very debilitating complications that you lived with for the rest of your life, or you died. The nearest “hospital” was hours away and unless you had money you don’t get seen. Sadly, this has been my experience in nearly every country in which I have served. We were overwhelmed by the physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Our hearts were broken, tears were shed, prayers lifted up, and hope given. The needs of the world became truly personal to me that day!
Fahad, my friend, was right there beside me, lovingly caring for his people. Fahad came from a more privileged background. He had never been to this part of his country, the poorest region in one of the poorest countries in the world. He had seen poverty and need before but never like this. How many of us have? But he worked in the ever present oppressive heat with the sights, sounds, smells, sickness all around us and it became personal to him as well.
I will never forget that moment. We finally saw the last of nearly 800 patients that first day and we were exhausted, we were beyond exhausted. It was the exhaustion after the worst of the worst call days except more so. Fahad came up to me and he was crying. He said these words that I will always remember, words that bonded us together as brothers forever despite the completely different worlds from which we came:
“Dr. Andy, I have never seen people like you. All my life I have been taught to work and study hard, prepare myself for the future, and take care of all my needs. I was taught that I must do these things first if I am to become a respected physician and have a good life. Today, as I watched you work, I have learned how wrong I have been. I have watched the love this team has shown every patient. I have seen the compassion and caring flowing from your hearts and most of all, I have seen how you put the needs of others before your needs. I understand now that I, too, must do the same. I must put the needs of others before my needs. I am to serve others first, their needs always before mine.”
I was speechless! In one day, he learned a life lesson that most people never learn – we are to put the needs of others before our needs. I told him that God had given him a changed heart and great wisdom. I told him that he was right. It is in the serving of others, in the placing of others before ourselves that we become a complete physician, not just the façade of one.
Fahad is safe but my heart breaks as I listen to him speak of the death and suffering he is facing every day. The grief, the sadness, the fear, and, yes, the anger at it all, coming through. Though his family is safe, it was days before he heard from his best friend, Ambesh, who had also served with Fahad and me that first mission. Ambesh was alive but had lost his sister, her husband and their young daughter. Fahad was devastated. He wept as he told me this. He had not talked to Ambesh yet because he could not make himself call him. He was afraid. What would he say? What if he became “mute” and could not say anything at all. What could I say in a time like this? I wanted to hold him and cry with him but I couldn’t, thousands of miles separated us. Of course, I told him I loved him, I would be praying for him, and I was here for him. But those words seemed empty in comparison to the reality he was facing.
I said these words to him:
“Fahad, in times like this who can know what to say? Sometimes, most times, there is no need to say anything. Just be there with him when you can and hold him, and cry with him. As Christians, we believe Jesus, at such times as this, “is the tears of God for us”. These are times you can be the same, the tears of God for those you love and are hurting. No one can imagine what Ambesh is going through unless they too have experienced the pain, the heartbreak, the despair he and thousands throughout Nepal are living through now. That is why there are no words sufficient to say. That’s when just letting him know you love him and are there for him is enough. You need to call him, Fahad. He needs to hear your voice, to know that he is not alone in this because he feels alone right now. Just tell him your heart is breaking for him; that you love him (and I added, it is okay for a man to say that!); and you are there for him.”
He said he would call him and thanked me.
Yesterday, he sent me a picture. Beneath the picture he had written,” Wanted to share this. It’s beyond me to describe. I can only wipe my tears.” The picture was that of a young Nepali mother, dead, lying on her back. Her son, probably 6 months old, was alive lying naked on top of her suckling at her breast.
I cried, how could you not? I answered back, “My eyes and heart cry for you, my brother. I am so sorry, so sad. As hard as this is to see, this needs to be seen. The world needs to know the pain and suffering that is now Nepal. BUT…Nepal will rise up from the ashes and your generation will lead it. Please keep sharing your heart with me.”
As my wife and I climbed into bed, we thanked God for our many blessings, as we always do. Then it hit me, do I really appreciate, do I really recognize how blessed I am or do I simply go through the motions of living life with all its busyness and as an afterthought each night simply repeat without comprehending the words, “Thank you God for all our blessings”? I am certain tonight will be different. May this day and every day be different as well for each of you. May your blessings be truly heart felt. Please keep Nepal in your prayers and thoughts. If you knew the people like I know Fahad, your heart would be broken, too.
Andy Lamb, MD