In the aftermath of the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Nepal, there have not only been stories of incredible loss, but also inspirational stories of true selflessness in the face of a natural disaster. One of HCA’s own, Nancy Malhotra, director of trauma services at Chippenham Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, was one of the many international visitors who were part of the volunteer relief effort directly following the quake. Nancy was with her husband and her stepdaughter hiking near Mount Everest when the massive earthquake struck during their return trek. Hours later, the entire family was at the forefront of the relief effort, treating victims’ injuries.
HCA Today: You said you were on a swinging bridge at the time of the earthquake. What was going through your mind at that point?
Nancy Malhotra: We were not quite sure what was going on at first. The bridge at that time had about 20 people on it. There was a loud sound, like a gust of wind, and the bridge began to sway. It started leaning to the right but corrected itself pretty fast. Then we started to see the rocks coming down the mountain and someone yelled, “Landslide!” It was happening on both sides of the bridge, so the locals were telling us to get in the middle of the bridge. You could see people running for cover in the small village on the other side of the bridge. It lasted for about a minute and then stopped. We only realized what had happened after we got to the other side. I don’t think we found out magnitude or where it was centered until a few hours later. I wish I could say I was not scared, but I honestly thought we were going to die. It just did not seem real.
HT: It’s hard to imagine the devastation without actually being there. Pictures are just pictures. What
was it like coming off the hiking area and into the city?
NM: It was strange. We were a four hour walk from Lukla, but in all the little villages we would go through, we could see the damage, and it was like all the people disappeared. Our guide said that most likely they were heading to larger towns for safety. We had to make several detours up the mountain because our trail was wiped out in some areas by the landslides. As we were walking, you could not help but look up every few minutes, waiting for a stray rock to come down on your head. The aftershocks added to that fear.
HT: When you came down from the mountain, talk about how you came to the decision to stay and help.
NM: When we finally arrived in Lukla, late in the evening on Saturday, April 25, although we knew about the earthquake, we had not heard about the avalanche at Everest base camp. It was not until I spoke to my mother on the phone that we heard about the injuries and deaths from the avalanche. We were scheduled to fly out of Lukla and back to Kathmandu on Sunday morning. My husband went to the airport to check if any flights were going out and while there, found out that there were at least 71 victims were being flown in to Lukla for treatment and triage to higher care. He offered our services. My husband is a Trauma Surgeon at a Level I Trauma center and I am a Nurse Practitioner that has been involved in trauma care for 20 years.
HT: Can you talk a little bit about the relief effort and all of the different healthcare providers who volunteered to assist those who needed medical attention?
NM: The Nepali army had secured the airport and was working with the local hospital at Lukla. This hospital is funded by a grant from the Swiss, and the medical director, Dr. Monica, organized efforts in the hospital and asked that my husband help there. Ben Ayers, who runs a local non-profit and is originally from Maine, organized a volunteer group at the airport to assess, treat and triage victims to the appropriate hospital. The local hospital in Lukla was small, but had an X-ray machine, so mainly the “walking wounded” would be sent up there for X-rays for rib and extremity fractures. The critical patients, which were mainly head and spinal cord injuries, were assessed, treated, packaged and flown to Kathmandu. We really tried not to overwhelm the hospitals in Kathmandu because they were dealing with a large number of casualties from the city. Unfortunately, the hospital in Lukla was not structurally sound after the initial quake and then the aftershocks, so many of the patients were flown out.
HT: I understand that you weren’t the only international volunteer to assist in relief efforts. Who else was with you?
NM: The medical volunteers at the airport were myself, a nurse midwife, a Norwegian physician, two medics from Australia and Great Britain and a German police officer with first responder training. The Nepali volunteers were great! Many were workers at the airport, but they carried patients on stretchers either to load them into air transport or to take to Lukla hospital, which was a mile away up a hill. They cleaned after each patient, made splints from sticks and rags, and provided the patients and medical staff with hydration. The triage ran without a hitch thanks to incredible teamwork and organization between the groups. We treated 71 patients in a four-hour period. Out of the 71 patients, I know of only one that died after getting to Kathmandu.
HT: Anything else you want to share about the experience?
NM: Working together with the locals made this experience so much better. We depended on one another to make the system work.