Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Life at the SIRC

It’s occurred to me that since I’ve left Oregon I’ve written about all sorts of topics and events without even mentioning what I’m doing here or what daily life is like. So, on the first anniversary of the massive 7.9 earthquake that first made me think of coming to Nepal, It’s time I let you all in on what is happening here.

My interest in Nepal goes decades deep. I first came here in 1991 and thought it was one of the brightest jewels on the Asia travel circuit. Kathmandu was a quaint sleepy capitol with clean air and monster peaks towering out over the foothills. I ventured west to Pokhara and hiked high above the city only to be beaten over the head from an audience with the mountain-god, Machipuchare, the most stunning and dramatic thing on Earth.  Ever since then, I’ve always kept Nepal on my radar. I’ve made two long trips to the Himalayas since, but have not been able to get back to Kathmandu.

Hopefully going back to Pokhara in two weeks for another audience with the great one. 
But exactly one year before this writing, I was working on a contract gig in Wisconsin when news broke of the horrendous and devastating quake. A few years earlier at a medical conference in Bangladesh, my brother Andy and I befriended Dr. Raju Dhakal, a Nepalese resident in rehabilitation medicine studying in Dhaka. Raju has a disability himself which forces him to walk with two arm canes. He can also play a mean guitar and sing all kinds of Nepali folk music so our friendship became much deeper than what you usually experience from meeting someone at a convention.

Dr. Raju Dhakal and his most awesome wife Sheela - who just completed here masters in public health. 

When news of the devastation flooded the airwaves I began checking my Facebook page hourly for news from Raju. He was still in Dhaka, but his entire family lives in the Kathmandu Valley. He is also tightly aligned with the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center, which is where I’ve been working the last two months.

Once we found out that everyone he knew was OK, we decided we had to help out as quickly as possible. We asked Raju what we could do and he very bluntly said, “We need cash.” As Raju and his colleagues in Dhakal mobilized for an emergency flight to Kathmandu, Andy and I began a social media blitz to raise as much as we could as quickly as we could. We sent out a press release and one of the local Milwaukee News stations picked up on it and had us in for an interview.

A little local news love from Fox 6 in Brewtown. 

In less than a week we collected close to $5000 (I’m guessing most of that came from readers of this blog) and sent it via Western Union to Raju. The next day Raju sent a picture from the SIRC with of a huge stack of Nepali rupees and the full staff of the SIRC standing behind him.

For those of you who haven’t traveled to LRE Countries (LRE = “Low Resource Environment,” formerly “Developing Nations,” formerly “Third World” – and probably by the time you read this, they will have come up with a new term.) stuff here is unbelievably cheap, so those dollars go a LONG, LONG way.  The average salary at the SIRC is about $2000 a year – and that’s for educated employees like nurses and physical therapists. I’m gladly paying $450 a month for room and board in a wheelchair accessible house (there are almost NONE here) in the fairly affluent suburb of Suryabinayak. But if I were your average bi-ped, I could surely find something closer to $50 month.
When I eat out, I stuff myself at very nice restaurants for under $5/plate. A nice 32 oz. bottle of local beer will run you $2.50 which is a major splurge for your average Nepali. If I just want to grab lunch at a café, it won’t run more than $2. Jeans are $10/pair and I’m going to splurge on a $15 pair of Adidas knock-offs as soon as my credit cards get here (my wallet got lifted the second week I was here and I STILL have not been able to access my accounts).

The biggest expense in Nepal is fuel which, due to Indian gas embargos, has climbed to $4/gallon. This has had a crippling effect on the earthquake recovery and mass transportation is being pushed to the limit. There are busses on the road carrying two times as many passengers as a full bus in the states – and kicking out 50 times (if not more) as much exhaust. 

That traffic ain't movin' and those exhaust pipes are most likely kicking out pure black smoke. 
Every day I wake up, take a shower (something very few of Nepal’s paras get to do) and head to an unmarked bus stop with my Nepali sister, Nikita. The SIRC owns two busses and they make daily 90-minute jaunts from Jorpati in Northeast Kathmandu through the city, past Suryabinayak and ending up at the SIRC just over the first eastern foothill of the Kathmandu Valley. One bus has places for three wheelers to chain in, but there are normally five or six of us. Whoever gets on first jumps out of their chair and takes a seat while the driver’s helper folds the chair and store it just in front of the cab or on the roof.

This bus has seats for 24, but we've packed 48 in - including a dozen wheelers. 

At any time, traffic can come to a complete standstill and you have no idea how long you might be stuck. Last week there was a protest on the road by family members of a motorist who was killed in a traffic accident. Traffic was stopped in both directions so I got off the bus and rolled the final four miles home. My co-workers never made it home to Jorpati. The bus turned around and they all took beds back at the hospital.

But most days, it’s just a twenty-minute ride from my house to the SIRC. The SIRC is a very clean, very modern rehabilitation clinic that currently has 60 beds. There’s a nearly finished expansion that will increase capacity to 200. There is only one part-time doctor, but there are more than 20 professional nurses, social workers, physical therapists and occupational therapists making sure each patient goes through their rehabilitation regime every day.

There are another 20 employees who take care of administration, peer counseling, vocational training and a crack staff of wheelchair repairmen. And there’s another group that does all the cooking, cleaning and driving of various vehicles.

A crowd shot from the SIRC 14th Anniversary party. It's about half staff and half patients.

And then there’s me. My official purpose is to produce the first set of Nepalese-language training videos for each phase of the hospital. PT, OT, Nursing, Vocational Ed, Chair maintenance… the list gets longer every day. I’ve got two people helping me, Anu and Rownika, and they’re making up for the language barrier.

But then I’ve got a bunch of other things I do. I edit the English language publications and I’m a de-facto peer counselor. I’ve been teaching guitar, piano, web-design and excel to anyone who wants to learn. Ever since the word got out that I can make videos, I’ve been working with all sorts of groups to either make them from scratch, or just put finishing touches on projects. I’m due to leave July 9th and I’ll be booked solid right up until the end.

But to be honest, my main job is to hang around and be positive. There is a lot of depression that goes along with spinal cord injury.  I went years not wanting to live another day. I didn’t believe people get through it and have good days. So that’s my main objective here: Have good days and hang out with people who don’t. The language barrier is tough, but I actually think it’s working when people see me they smile – and some patients don’t smile around other people.  

I probably shouldn’t sing loudly as I’m rolling around the place, but they’re getting used to it.

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