For most of us, watching the tragedy of the Nepal earthquake unfold on the news and across the internet has been heart wrenching. But for those who witnessed the devastation firsthand, the experience hit even closer to home and the memories are still vivid.
Ph.D. candidate in neurosciences at Stanford University, Jana Lim, was in Nepal at the time of the earthquake. As co-creator of the HandHero, Jana is part of the ReSurge partnership with Stanford University's Design for Extreme Affordability, and she had traveled to Nepal to work with ReSurge hand therapist Mohan Dangol on the latest HandHero prototype.
Below is Jana's account of what happened.
In the seconds before the earthquake, I was in a small shop looking for some Nepali snacks to share with friends back home. I had spent the last two weeks working in and out of the Kirtipur Hospital Cleft and Burn Center just outside Kathmandu, starting the clinical trial of HandHero, an innovative hand splint our team created in Design for Extreme Affordability at Stanford University, in close partnership with ReSurge International. The hand therapist I worked with, Mohan Dangol, had graciously invited me to spend my last day in Nepal with his family before my flight home that evening. Little did we know that the flight would be cancelled and our lives would be changed in the next few moments.
The shaking that ensued was like nothing I had ever experienced, despite hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area quake zone. At first we were confused as to what was happening, but as the shaking got more intense, we struggled to stay on our feet. “It’s an earthquake!” shouted Mohan. “We must get outside!” We managed to stumble out the door to the middle of the road, where time seemed to stop. Traffic had come to a standstill and people were emerging from buildings, standing bewildered in the middle of the street, trying to process what just happened.
Mohan and I immediately thought of his family, and we ran the couple of blocks back to his home, gripping each other in fear and comfort. As we ran, we saw goods strewn out of shops, packaged food and bottled drinks, flower bouquets lying in puddles of water from spilled vases. Down an alleyway we saw a giant plume of dust several stories high, which we would later learn was the site of a demolished childcare center, where several children had just run inside, only to be crushed in the building’s collapse.
When we reached his house, Mohan ran upstairs and carried his 92-year-old grandmother to safety on his back. His wife, son and daughter-in-law followed, carrying their four white dogs. His daughter-in-law was sobbing, frightened of losing her mother who lived elsewhere. Despite having only met a few minutes earlier, we hugged each other tight and I tried to offer her comfort. Not knowing what else to do, all six of us sat down in a row on the sidewalk, holding four shivering dogs, and waiting. The ground was still moving, much less than the first shake, but still tangibly rumbling in short increments. Eventually we walked to a nearby field, the lot of a small military building. We saw what would come to be a common sight on the roadside: brick walls completely tipped over and shattered, ubiquitous reminders of the brittleness of larger brick buildings, and indeed of Nepal’s pervasive fragile infrastructure.
Neighbors had started to gather in this small field, congregating in scattered groups. Tensions would ease during longer periods of stillness and inactivity, only to be reignited with the next shaking of the ground. Each new tremor would trigger a chorus of prayers to the Hindu Lord Shiva for protection. My compatriots of all ages from 6 to 92 would hold each other and utter this mantra until the shaking stopped. Over the next several hours we spent in the field, there would be periods of calmness and even laughter at times, punctuated again by tears, desperate prayers, and attempted phone calls to loved ones. A complete stranger to this community, I felt at home and was welcomed with open arms into circles of kind faces. Often not speaking more than a few words of each other’s language, we exchanged smiles, hugs, and broken English phrases. Mutual feelings of support transcended language. Eventually we ventured out to survey the damage done in Mohan’s home and in the surrounding neighborhood. Inside the house, we found furnishings and contents of shelves in each of the rooms strewn haphazardly about, and a little marble Buddha figurine lay unceremoniously on the ground next to some broken ceramics. But fortunately the house itself survived, thanks to Mohan’s foresight in constructing an extra strong foundation for the building.
Other buildings nearby were not so lucky. We came upon one behind some fallen power lines that was completely demolished. A car had been in front of this building as it fell and was trapped under the debris. Soon it became clear that there was a cafe inside where people were taking tea when the quake happened, and that they were still trapped in there. People rushed over to a corner where they could hear calls for help. Military personnel and bystanders were on the scene doing what they could to clear the rubble and get them out. Eventually as night was nearing, Mohan and I went to investigate the situation at Tribhuvan Airport, Nepal’s only international airport. There were many people, locals and foreigners alike, gathered in confusion outside, with few employees to be seen, as most had fled their posts to find their families when the quake happened. Short of one or two paper signs announcing flight cancellations, reliable information was hard to come by, and it became clear that very few, if any, flights would be departing that night.
We navigated back through the darkened streets to the field near Mohan’s house to find his family and neighbors settling in with blankets and pillows under the patio of a small cafe in the lot. The owners generously provided hot rice and curry for everyone, along with bottled water and tea. We tried to doze off, amid sounds of ambulances zooming by the street just behind the cafe, nervous dogs barking, and again, the occasional quiet jitter of the earth in yet more aftershocks. Snuggled tightly together to ward off the evening chill, I felt incredibly fortunate that we were under shelter of a roof. Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to the sound of rain, a heavy downpour lasting a few minutes. This was only one shower of many to come in the next days, drenching Kathmandu and the many survivors we saw camped out in middle of big intersections, having chosen to take cover under the open skies rather than the potential danger of their once safe homes.
In the morning, unable to reach the airline’s call center, we knew we had to go again in person. We stopped briefly for breakfast while quickly perusing local newspapers for information. The numbers of casualties were staggering and the photos of collapsed homes and historic monuments were heart-breaking and hard to believe. We drove around on Mohan’s motorbike trying to find an open gas station. After about twenty minutes of touring the streets, driving by shops that were mostly either closed or damaged, several that surprised me in their ability to be reduced to tiny smithereens, we finally found a station with at least fifty other motorists lined up for petrol. It cost about twice the amount we had paid just days before, but we were infinitely thankful that there was any left for us at all.
We returned again to the chaos of the airport, and Mohan and I exchanged a difficult goodbye. I managed eventually to navigate my way through the increasingly anxious crowds. Minutes after I arrived in the departures hall with a boarding pass miraculously in hand, another big quake happened. Glancing fearfully at the unstable-looking high ceilings, travelers rapidly flooded out onto the tarmac, where we gazed out at the docked planes and empty sky, receiving word that this last shake caused more incoming flights to be diverted. The hours passed and planes started moving sporadically, and each successful take-off was cheered with applause and hopes cautiously rising. For many hours, we found ourselves still stuck in the departures hall. Repeated announcements of flight delays and cancellations. Random delivery of drinking water and snacks by Chinese crew. Few chairs left to sit and people napping on the ground on cardboard scraps.
Eventually, flights started more systematically moving and hope of actually leaving the airport that night was in sight. Around 12:30 AM, thirty-six surreal hours after the first quake, I boarded an airplane to Dubai.
Now I am home safe in California, but my thoughts and heart remain in Nepal. In correspondence with Mohan, I have learned that aftershocks continue, and though they remain safe and still camped out in the safety of the field, there is a shortage of drinking water and cost of basic supplies are rapidly rising. While we had ample food immediately after the initial quake, life in Kathmandu is becoming more challenging, as supplies become scarce. Dr. Shankar Rai and the staff at Kirtipur Hospital have already seen more than 100 injured patients and have over 30 trauma surgeries on deck in one day, many of whom cannot afford to pay for treatment. Dr. Kiran Nakarmi, hand surgeon on the team, managed to travel back to Kathmandu from a rural surgical outreach camp and has dove completely into the new tragedy at hand. So much remains uncertain about the stability of Kathmandu and greater Nepal as the community rises to re-build homes and lives. But one thing remains clear to me: The intensely committed and caring doctors, physical therapists, nurses, and other staff at Kirtipur will work tirelessly until every trauma patient arriving at their doorstep is treated to the best of their ability.
We are thankful Jana made it home safely.
We are also doing everything we can to assist Mohan and the rest of our 50-person team in Nepal. Want to help? Make a gift to the Nepal Earthquake Victims Surgical Care Fund today.