When we hear about a nurse going to Nepal, we tend to have a mental image of someone tending to injuries directly caused by the country’s devastating earthquakes.
But in many ways, the real patient is Nepal itself, explains White Rock’s Genelle Leifso – recently returned from a month-long stint in the country under the auspices of the Canadian Red Cross.
Three months after April’s quakes – which killed more than 8,800 people, injured more than 22,000 and destroyed almost 600,000 homes – the principal work is helping to provide the infrastructure to take care of life-goes-on needs, such as helping deliver babies.
“When I was there, we only saw one trauma patient – someone who got caught in a landslide – but there were babies every day,” she said.
A retired OR nursing instructor at BCIT – who still does casual shifts at Vancouver General and Peace Arch Hospital – Leifso turned 64 while volunteering in Nepal. Husband Lowell was back in White Rock at the time; their one son is grown and has his own career as a pediatrician.
Leifso was assigned to a hospital in Dhunche, nearly six hours north of Katmandu, over switchback mountain roads reduced to little more than trails by frequent landslides.
A once-popular tourism destination for hikers, near Langtang Mountain, it is struggling to get back on its feet as a self-sufficient community.
Leifso was working at a hillside hospital – reduced to a series of tents and “one warehouse building that was relatively intact.”
“It was 240 steps just going up to the operating room,” she added, noting the hillside was unstable while they were working.
“We moved our tent three times in three weeks,” she said. “It made me think of the importance of travelling light. At the same time, we had somewhere comfortable to return to – unlike many of the people in Nepal.”
The team she was on comprised 12 Canadians, as well as two Red Cross personnel from the Phillipines, two from Columbia and one from Nepal.
“Everyone was just so capable and so committed – it was wonderful to be a part of that group.”
In one regard, the dilapidated hospital’s capabilities received a distinct upgrade – the team’s provision of surgical services.
“That was not something that was part of the old hospital,” she said. “The patients were women who, generally, needed C-sections. What they’d normally do would be to refer themselves to Katmandu.”
Leifso said she could not help but be impressed by the spirit of the Nepalese themselves.
“The involvement with the local people in Dhunche was heartwarming – they were overwhelmingly accepting,” she said. “The people are amazingly industrious and resilient.”
A lingering image is of women and men working together in the streets to clear rubble that still impedes cleanup efforts.
“I remember an older lady sitting on the ground, hammering rocks into smaller bits,” she said.
“It’s going to be quite a while before they are going to be anywhere near normal.”
Overall, her time in Nepal was an “amazing experience.”
“It was a huge opportunity for each members of the team to feel that they were going to leave some sort of legacy,” she said. “The people we were working with are developing their skills and abilities. The work I did with a couple of nurses and a couple of local girls was in learning the way to clean and sterilize instruments.
“They’ll have some sort of hospital there in the future, and if the equipment and tools they’re using are cleaned properly and maintained properly without transmitting infection, that is something that will last.”