A Tale of Two Hospitals - Pokhara, Nepal 

Someone in the village was hurt one night. Minor, but nevertheless warranted a visit to the local hospital for some stitches. As it was a friend of Devi, he decided to go visit him, and as a friend of Devi, I decided to tag along. Passing by Western Regional Hospital all the time in Pokhara, I was curious to see what it was like on the inside. I knew that whenever anyone in Devi’s family was sick, they visited Western Regional. As we neared the building, I got my first up-close glimpse. The outside was not impressive, to say the least. We headed to the emergency entrance, which also happened to be the main and only entrance, and walked inside a dimly lit, dingy corridor. Triage? Registration? Anyone? It was empty. Devi charged right in and started looking around, calling his friend’s name over and over. We passed through some doors marked Operation Theatre. As reading english was Devi’s best suit, I mentioned that we might not want to go into the Operating area, but he payed no attention to my meek protestations. Once inside, the scene horrified me. There were hospital cots scattered about, some IV drips hanging from bare electrical wires, and some, obviously very ill people laying miserably about. I looked for anyone in identifiable white. Doctors, nurses, even a candystriper would have maed me feel better. Meanwhile, Devi was earnestly poking his head in every doorway, open and closed. We wandered into one room where a pregnant women was having a checkup. Ooops, no privacy here. In another room, people were getting x-rayed and I grabbed Devi and yanked him out of that one quick. A few, very tired looking doctors were wandering around, and Devi didn’t hesitate to bother them in his quest to find his friend. It seemed all very surreal. Plaster peeling from very dirty walls. Bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The visceral sound of people’s misery constantly pervading the gloom. Rooms with fancy names that yielded no equivalently fancy machines. Open, deserted stores of medicines and chemicals. I now understand how, last year my neighbor’s son Sangip went to the hospital with his mother, when she was ill, and came home with the tip of his nose gone from an accidental meeting with acid. In the midst of a this Bosch-esque nightmare, we did eventually find his friend, and he was fine, but I don’t think I will ever be the same.

After looking into the eyes of one miserable patient, I made Devi promise that if ever I was so ill, that he would NOT take me here. Take me to Manipal Hospital instead…

Ahhhh…Manipal, an oasis in the desert, a mirage upon the landscape of Pokhara. I had often viewed it from across the Seti River. A magnificant five story building, built in traditional Nepali style, but with beautiful modern touches. A panorama of glass and red brick construction housing one of, amazingly enough, South Asia’s premier teaching hospitals. Doctors came from around the world, to teach and to learn, but predominantly from India. Only about 25% of the residents there were Nepali, and English was the de facto language of medicine. I was always curious about it. It seemed so incongruous amidst the squalor of parts of Pokhara. Aloof, alone across the river, it’s only neighbors, were the equally impressive student hostel and other associated buildings. When I extracted Devi’s promise, I never imagined I would see it so soon.

John and Karen from Canada, arrived in Pokhara with their baby Sarah, a cute nine month old, ready for trekking in the Annapurnas. We had been corresponding for some time over the internet about their upcoming trip, as they were anxious to avoid any problems with Sarah, but eager to see Nepal nevertheless. I hooked them up with Narayan, a good friend, and they were heading to his village for trekking for five days. Devi’s brother Prakash, went along as a porter. On the morning of the fifth day, coincidentally, the day we were expecting them back, we were awakened by Prakash, banging on the front door. He came in, babbling in Nepali, and it took awhile for anyone to understand him. They were all at Manipal Hospital. A lot of blood, bleeding. Who? The baby? Took a boat last night. Bleeding. Accident? Who? Finally we deduced that it was in fact, Karen who was in the hospital and was bleeding all night, not from a wound, but from terrible cramping and contraction like pain. We immediately went to Manipal to see them, all the while wondering what could have brought it on. Trekking? No, it was in fact, an extremely easy, leisurely walk. Altitude, they did not even come close to dangerous altitude.

I approached Manipal for the first time up close. A bit of the glow and sheen dissipated upon closer inspection, but that was before I realized it wasn’t finished. It was still a work in progress, and that once it was completed, it would shine. I walked into the main lobby area upon slick Nepali marble, and eyed the traditional touches evident everywhere. Hand carved Newari wood panelling around the registration desk. Stupa trim on each staircase. Women manning the front desk in colorful saris. A ‘May I Help You’ banner slung around a young man in traditional Nepali dress and topi. We inquired at the front desk about Karen, bideshi ‘foreigner’ tourist. They directed us to the second floor OB/GYN area. So far, so impressive. As we reached the second floor, Devi inquired again about Karen and the security guard, at first, confused, became very animated once the subject of a ‘white baby’ was brought up. Oh, yes, her…she is now in the emergency area and oh what a beautiful white baby she has. We found her resting on a cot enclosed by a few curtained panels, Sarah and John nearby. She was tired, but claimed to be fine. The problem? She was pregnant and didn’t know it. As we came in, they took her away for an ultrasound. I tagged along for moral support and sheer curiousity. On the way there and the subsequent waiting, she recalled the long, scary night for me.

They had decided to stop about two hours from Begnas Bazaar, the finish of the trek where the buses leave for Pokhara. The small guest house was situated on the opposite bank of Bagnas Lake, and as a celebration of the last night, the beer flowed freely. Stomach cramps bothered Karen throughout the evening, but she shrugged it off due to dhal bhat. Who doesn’t get the runs? However, around midnight, the pain become unbearable and doubled her over on the floor. That was when she noticed the blood, so much blood. With Sarah wailing and John trying to decide what to do, Narayan and Prakash knocked on the door, after being wakened by Sarah's incessant screaming. Worried about the baby, they, at first missed Karen curled up in a fetal position on the floor. Narayan, taking the lead, told John to pack and sent Prakash to fetch a boat, to cross the lake the fast way rather than walking via the road. Waking the owner of the home, they launched a boat and set off for the opposite shore, on the still, silent moonlit lake. Once in Begnas bazaar, they ran into a new problem. No buses or taxis. Prakash ran around banging on the empty buses hoping to find one with a driver asleep inside. With some luck on their side, they commandeered a local bus with the help of cold hard cash, and away they went, like rock stars in the night, finally landing at Manipal Hospital around 3 in the morning.

Karen was quick to praise the hospital and it’s staff. Scared of what she might face, alone and in a foreign country, she was surprised to be greeted by Indian female doctors in fluent English. Courteous and kind, the entire experience was as pleasant as could be given the circumstances. The ultrasound technician, again a female, was extremely professional, and the equipment, first rate. To be honest, the rooms were still abit bare and somewhat dingy, but you can’t expect soft blue floral prints in a third world hospital. After the ultrasound and some consultation, they released her and said to get some rest. It was only at this point that it got kinda strange. They declared her to be fine. The head OB/GYN gave her a very vague explanation about her breast-feeding and blood building up and finally releasing. But when questioned about the positive pregnancy test, he appeared momentarily bewildered. Then he asked her, did it matter? Whether or not she was pregnant before was irrelevant, his demeanor suggested. You are not pregnant now, he said matter of factly, and left it at that. Ke Garne…

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