LDS doctor serves in post-earthquake Nepal

Dr. Kert Howard said he’s never done anything quite so spontaneous as his recent trip to the earthquake-ravaged country of Nepal.

On Sunday, April 25, Dr. Howard — a podiatric surgeon and member of the Gibson Jack Ward, Pocatello Idaho Stake — opened his USAToday newspaper and read the headline “Nepal rocked by magnitude 7.8 earthquake.” Within 48 hours he was boarding a plane for Kathmandu.

After reading about the devastation wreaked across the South Asian country, Dr. Howard immediately texted a friend and fellow physician, Dr. Fahim Rahim, who was set to leave for a trip to hike to the base camp of Mount Everest.

The sherpa, who was to serve as the guide on the mountaineering venture, discouraged Dr. Rahim from coming, but Dr. Rahim responded that, instead of coming to climb, he would come to help. So he texted Dr. Howard back: “I’m still going. Why don’t you come with me?”

Despite never having been in a disaster area, Dr. Howard felt a desire to go. “I told my wife: ‘I feel like I need to go. It sounds like they really need help.’ ” So with her support, he purchased the airline tickets and by Tuesday was setting off for the other side of the globe.

Dr. Rahim’s and Dr. Howard’s journey included a stop in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where they purchased supplies. Upon their departure, they checked 32 bags, including 30 containers full of medicine and other provisions. Only 31 bags made it to the Kathmandu Airport. Dr. Howard spent the next two weeks with just the clothes he was wearing.

With the help of social media, Dr. Rahim was able to recruit others to join their team. Soon, their group swelled to include other doctors and medical professionals who met them in country, as well as many local Nepalese volunteers who were able, despite not having medical skills, to provide much-needed logistical and communication support.

Upon arrival they heard of a hospital 40 miles from the capital near the epicenter of the earthquake that was in need of bolstering. Dr. Howard said Kathmandu, with larger buildings with sturdy foundations, wasn’t as hard hit as he expected, but, “the remote villages were worse than I had pictured,” he said. “The houses were made of brick and mortar and had completely crumpled.”

The hospital’s orthopedic surgeons had been operating around the clock on people pulled from beneath the rubble. Dr. Howard and another orthopedic surgeon were assisted in surgeries while Dr. Rahim and some of the other medical personnel from their group worked in the emergency room that was overflowing with trauma patients. The rest of the group worked on obtaining supplies.

Dr. Howard said the most difficult part of the experience wasn’t the physical discomfort, but witnessing the suffering of the people. For example, there was a room in the building next to the hospital filled wall to wall with people waiting for surgery. The hospital staff often asked him to go and consult.

“They were so patient,” he recalled. “No one was clamoring, ‘Treat me,’ or ‘Help me first.’ The people were so appreciative of everything we were doing. The most heart-wrenching thing for me was we couldn’t do more, we couldn’t do it faster. The people were [lying] there, most times without painkillers, and were patiently waiting for their turn. You’d go in and fix a broken femur or a broken leg or arm or back or feet or ankle. And they were just [lying] there waiting for their turn.”

There were a couple of cases where someone’s limb had gone without blood for too long and had to be amputated. Brother Howard recalled a little girl, around 6 years old, crying and asking the doctors to put her leg back on.

“There were just a lot of times where you’d want to break down, but you could only do what you could do,” he said.

Despite the rigors of working 12- to 14-hour days in surgery and sleeping on the ground in tents, Dr. Howard said he felt the Lord’s blessings. “It was always nice at the end of the day, as I climbed into my tent, to read the scriptures and have my nightly prayers. I was always able to sleep well, even though I was on the ground, and wake up refreshed,” he said and then shared the words of Doctrine and Covenants 84. “I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”

After about a week, other medical teams began to arrive and fewer survivors were being pulled from the rubble. Brother Howard’s group decided to turn their resources to other remote villages. In many of these villages, the group would set up a medical clinic, often in the only structure still standing such as a school, which was built by stricter building standards.

After spending just under two weeks in the disaster area, Brother Howard returned home to his family in Pocatello. Although he was excited to return to his family and to clean clothes, his own bed and a tall glass of milk, he was sad to leave the people whose needs were still so great.

“You don’t do it because you’re expecting a reward,” he said of his time in Nepal. “The Savior taught, ‘In asmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me’ (Matthew 25:40). I guess it’s just if you do unto the least of them, you do it unto the Savior. That’s really my testimony, trying [to follow] the example of the Savior.”

Throughout the trip, communicating was difficult at times. He couldn’t speak Nepali and they couldn’t speak English. “So many times, the people put their hands together like they [were] praying and you knew they were thanking you. So I would just repeat [the gesture] to say thanks. You were just communicating spirit to spirit, without words,” he said.

Dr. Howard said his experiences strengthened his testimony that all are children of Heavenly Father and he hopes that members serve others in whatever capacity they can. “We have so many opportunities [in the Church] for us to go and serve, being aware that we are all together on this earth.”

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