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From Nepal to Rapid City…and Back

May 25, 2015 05:31PM ● By MED Magazine

By Alex Strauss

The Black Hills of South Dakota are a long way from the mountains of Nepal. But for 12 Nepali doctors who work at Rapid City Regional Hospital, Rapid City has come to feel almost like home. Now, in the wake of Nepal’s devastating earthquake on April 25th, some of them are making the long journey back again to help their homeland recover.

RCRH Hospitalist Binod Dhungana, MD, is one of ten hospitalits and two specialists who have settled in Rapid City in the last five years. Within days of the earthquake, he became the first of the doctors to book his ticket home.

“My mom and dad live in Kathmandu. I have three sisters and a brother, too. They are all doing alright physically but, of course, they are very scared,” says Dr. Dhungana. The son of a Nepali lawyer, Dhungana moved to Kathmandu with his family when he was in high school. He attended medical school in Nepal before leaving for additional training in New York.


Responding to Disaster

After he checks on family, Dr. Dhungana plans to put his medical skills to work in an area that is more rural than Kathmandu but still has an established clinic. This, he believes, will be the most efficient way to quickly start helping the medical effort.

“We will be in a remote area where they already have a small base set up,” says Dr. Dhungana. “Some of my colleagues from all over the US are going, too. Our intention is to coordinate with organizations that are already on the ground in the region.”

Ironically, this was the first year since moving to the US that the young doctor had decided not to use his summer vacation time to go home to Nepal. He had hoped to introduce his extended family to the Black Hills, where he has lived for the past two years. The earthquake changed that.

“As soon as the earthquake happened, I cancelled my vacation and got very active online,” says Dr. Dhungana, an active member of the American Nepal Medical Foundation. The foundation, which is made up of hundreds of Nepali American doctors, was established two decades ago by a group of Nepali doctors and American doctors who had worked in Nepal. The mission of the volunteer group has been to support the medical education of doctors from Nepal in the United States.

The group was preparing for its annual meeting, of which Dr. Dhungana was the chief organizer, just as the earthquake hit – a fact that dramatically changed the agenda.

“One of the items on our agenda will be to revisit the mission of the organization,” says Dr. Dhungana. “We realize that we are one of the most important US organizations to help in the relief effort.”

By the time Dr. Dhungana left for Nepal a few days after the meeting, the American Nepal Medical Foundation had already collected more than $250,000 dollars to support the relief effort in Nepal. Some of that money came from group members, but some was directed to the foundation from other organizations, looking for a way to contribute. One of the biggest contributors was Rapid City Regional Hospital.

“It really means a lot to be part of such a great organization that is willing to help,” says Dr. Dhungana. “The support of the community has been great, too. We held a press conference regarding what I am attempting to do in Nepal and that was well covered in the news.” In addition, the hospital quickly organized a bake sale at which they collected donations totaling more than $14,000.


Work Ahead

“Part of my work in Nepal will be to organize the funds that we have and figure out how they are going to be used,” says Dr. Dhungana, who has been reading up on mistakes made in the response to the massive Haitian earthquake in 2010. “That relief effort was not well organized and there was a lot of duplication. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen in Nepal. We want to have a sense of what the long-standing needs are going to be.”

Although Nepal is prone to earthquakes, Dhungana, says the only quake he ever experienced was a barely felt tremor during his training in New York. He is, however, not a total stranger to the pressures of disaster medicine. Dhungana was an intern in the ICU at a New York hospital when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. When other area hospitals were flooded, his had to handle the massive overflow of patients.

“Obviously, it is very different from responding to an earthquake in Nepal, but it was similar in that we had to handle a lot of patients very quickly,” he says. “We worked 40 hours straight.”

While Dr. Dhungana spends the month of May in Nepal doing what he can to help, the hospital’s remaining Nepali doctors are working together to “hold down the fort” at home in Rapid City.


At Home in Rapid City

One of those who will stay behind for now is Dr. Pushpa Poudel. Dr. Poudel was the first Nepali physician to come to Rapid City in 2010. He quickly spread the word to his colleagues about the beauty, and seclusion of what he calls this “secret place”.

“I was looking for a place that reminded me of Nepal and that had some openings,” says Dr. Poudel, who did his training in Brooklyn. “Though Rapid City is far away from Nepal, it is very spacious like Nepal. It is beautiful and mountainous. There is not much crime. The people are nice. So I invited more friends and more friends.”

Those friends now include ten RCRH hospitalists, a cardiologist, and a nephrologist. Several are raising families in the Rapid City area and three have even started a Nepali restaurant together. Although they are still far from home, Poudel says the camaraderie of Nepali colleagues and the support of RCRH makes the distance easier to manage.

Dr. Poudel’s mother and married brother still live in Nepal. None of the family was hurt by the earthquake and the house, which was newly built, sustained only minor damage. Eventually, he, too, hopes to go home to do what he can to help. In the meantime, both doctors say they are grateful for the support of the hospital they call their professional home.

“We love the hospital and the mountains remind us of home,” says Dr. Dhungana. “Most of us live in the valley.”

“The fact that the hospital would have the bake sale and gather contributions, it really encourages us,” says Dr. Poudel. “It makes us feel happy and important. This makes us feel like we are not alone.”

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