One Year Later: A Global Health Student’s Reflections on Post-Earthquake Nepal

Monday, April 25, 2016 - 9:15am
Hillary and Doctors in Gorkha
Hillary Richards, third from left, with the first-responding doctors in Gorkha, Nepal.

By Hillary Richards, 2nd year MSc-GH student

Oh, April: it’s both a stressful and joyful month for a first-year Master of Science in Global Health (MSc-GH) student. Classes are winding down. Students are wrapping up their final projects and papers. They’re finished with research proposals and IRBs and are looking forward to relaxing before embarking on summer fieldwork.

I was in the same boat last year—until April 25th, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people and affecting more than eight million. I remember waking up to the BBC alert on my phone in the middle of the night, only to go back to sleep. I thought it was only a dream, perhaps spurred by pre-fieldwork departure anxiety, as I had finally booked my ticket to Kathmandu three days earlier to leave on May 25th. But as I woke up in the morning, I realized otherwise: the news alerts kept rolling in, each time reporting a higher casualty count.

Fear, Worry and an Urge to Help

My immediate reaction to this natural disaster and public health crisis occurring in the country where I was planning to conduct my fieldwork was fear and worry. I impatiently waited for news to roll in regarding the safety of contacts and acquaintances I’d made over the past few months, along with their family, friends, etc. 

At the same time, I immediately understood that I’d need to abandon all of the work I’d done to design a research study, and I’d have to delay my trip and start from scratch in order to develop a new research plan in line with this most current, unexpected humanitarian crisis. 

But I also realized that none of this was truly a struggle in the face of a natural disaster. There was no sadness or lamentation over months of work being abandoned, but rather an overwhelming need to do whatever I could, in whatever manner, in order to help during this trying time.

The Best Laid Plans ...

One of the lessons all MSc-GH students learn during fieldwork is that not everything goes as planned. It’s one of those lovely life lessons: what’s written down in great detail in a research proposal is not necessarily what will work, or happen, when in the field. There may be difficulties in participant recruitment, or the quality of respondents’ answers, or unexpected logistical problems in coordination or carrying out aspects of research that cannot be accounted for when planning research. 

And, for some of us, this lesson comes before even reaching the field and leaves them grappling with difficult questions: Do I travel to a country so soon following an earthquake? Do I abandon the idea of summer fieldwork and wait until fall? Do I try to identify another country where my initial research proposal could be carried out? 

Broadened Project Scope Gave Way to Deeper Understanding

In the end, my departure had to be delayed by one month, primarily due to a second earthquake of 7.3-magnitude in Nepal, just two weeks after the April 25th earthquake. 

I was still able to do research, but my initial plan to observe a training and interviews with participants grew into additional training observations in earthquake-affected districts. In addition, I was exposed to intimate accounts of the earthquake, through training participants’ anecdotes, colleagues’ re-tellings of events, and also spending a few days with the first-responder doctors in Gorkha, the epicenter of the April 25th earthquake. 

Bearing witness to these testimonies, and being given the opportunities to observe and interact intimately with staff from local and international NGOs involved in humanitarian relief—along with other stakeholders including doctors, specialists, government and district officials—truly expanded the knowledge and experience that I could incorporate into my research. These experiences also provided much broader context and understanding of the complexities of implementing and conducting training programs in humanitarian settings.

There were aftershocks (full disclosure: only a couple of them were personally felt—I may have slept through one or two). There were building inspections before entering, to ensure that they were stable in case another earthquake hit. There were clear instructions as to what to do and where to exit in case of another earthquake. In short, there was no lack of worry and anxiety in light of frequent aftershocks and two earthquakes within two weeks. 

Teamwork and Recovery ... and Real-World Global Health Lessons

At the same time, I had never experienced such resilience from people. In many accounts of the earthquake, people talked about their personal experiences, but they also underlined the fact that any destruction or disaster that they had personally experienced had also been experienced by everyone else around them. There was no isolation or focus on building back one’s own life, but rather a communal need to share and help build back one’s community and one’s country. 

There was so much teamwork, so much community built during this time of disaster reconstruction that allowed everyday life in these disaster-affected areas to continue as normal. Without the external reminders of earthquake destruction, such as ruined homes, buildings and monuments, one would be surprised to find out that such a disaster had occurred, with people continuing about their daily lives and work.

One year later, it has been quite an experience seeing how things have unfolded since the earthquake: which trainings and support services have been implemented, how expansive the coverage is, how many people have been helped, and how people have gone about the process of getting back to “normal.” There are still large aftershocks, not as frequent as before but still alarming each time they occur. The many recent earthquakes around the world serve as a constant reminder that disasters can strike at any time, without warning or ability to predict. 

The 2015 earthquakes truly took the country by surprise, but despite being only a year into what will be a long recovery period, Nepal has come a long way in terms of recovery, and people seem more prepared and able to tackle future disasters in their country. 

It has been nothing short of a gift, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to be a global health student working in a timely, humanitarian crisis setting, and to be able to have had such a broad scope of experiences related to the earthquake, both in-country and for such a long time after returning home.