Special guest blog by Dr. Nikhil Joshi, currently on the ground in Nepal for Team Broken Earth.
I saw the pictures year after year from Haiti- it looked like the docs and nurses there had a ball and really enjoyed being there. Of course they made a significant difference, and things probably weren’t as easy as they were in Canada, but it didn’t look especially tough.
But that’s the deceptive part of social media isn’t it? We all pretend like we’re having the best times of our lives, when the truth is often far from that. Most of the time we show only the happy portions of our lives, while the private and painful moments are hidden.
Before I left, one of the Team Broken Earth members was trying to prepare me for the things I would see. He told me about a time he was with a Haitian porter who brought a patient for a CT scan. This doctor struck up a conversation and asked what this young man would be doing over the weekend. He replied that he liked to work and found being home difficult because his wife, children and parents died in the 2010 earthquake. They died in his home while he was at work. He then talked about how he tried to pry the walls off with bloody fingers. But he knew that no one survived. He listened everywhere in the destroyed house, stifling even in his weeping, hoping to hear something. Anything.
In the retelling of that story, the doctor I was talking to teared up and I realized that these things we see, these injustices and tragedies that occur, stay with us forever. The cost for helping others is sharing their pain and that can scar the soul. No matter how disconnected we pretend to be, wherever we are in the world and whatever we do, if we interact with people we can’t help but feel these things and be moved by them.
But at the time, I didn’t know what to do with the information. I didn’t think it was going to be that bad for me in Nepal.
But then I saw her shoes.
They were the remnants of a child’s flip flops. Two red flip flops. In the village of Lang Tang where almost everyone had died. You’ve heard me write about Lang Tang before, estimates are that hundreds have died there. When you arrive in the village, the feeling is palpable. For those in my team who have never felt death before, it was unnerving. Even for me who has administered to the dying routinely, it was challenging. I was never previously in a place where hundreds have died. The air is sad and hallowed. I remember vividly what the air felt like, what it sounded like, how the earth felt before my feet.
The child who owned the red flip flops is dead- I know it in my gut. Even the metal pots and pans are in a million pieces, what chance did human sinew and bone have? We’re such fragile creatures, human beings. I wonder how she died, what was the last thing she was doing? Were here parents close by or was she alone when it happened?
While it is a sad memory, I am not broken. I bore witness to a tragedy that happened in my lifetime and I tried to make people care about it. I could do no more. In knowing this, I am free to choose how I process this experience, and I’m working to see it as a meaningful learning experience that is a failure only if I forget the child who once ran through the mountains in red flip flops.
Some people find it helpful to talk to a counsellor or professional after being through experiences like this, and I hope I make the point clearly that this is not a sign of weakness but a strength. That asking for help isn’t anything to be ashamed about and probably can help aid workers cope with the trauma that occurs with the things we see, whether that is at home or away.
But will I talk with someone when this is over? No. First because I already have- I shared with the world my most intimate thoughts and life experiences here in Nepal. This is my work but also my catharsis. I’m free from the pain of the memories I share because I share them with you. I have tried to show the world what has happened in Nepal, the miseries and triumphs and by sharing them the triumphs are doubled and the miseries are halved.
But the other reason I don’t want to see someone after this is over is because I don’t want to talk about it. Will telling you that I saw starving children, or a full body bag floating in a small gulley after a monsoon rain help me? Will my friends Josh and Wyatt talking about the broken vertebrae they saw make you care more for this country? No, not you the person who is reading this right now. It might for others- lots of people need the horror to be shocked into caring but I seriously doubt that this apply to the readers of this blog. ‘Horror porn’ as I call it is the exact opposite of Team Broken Earth’s ethos. You’re not reading this because life is hard; you know that already. You’re reading this because you want to know that there are people besides you who still care to make it better. Yes, I’ve seen some things this month- but I choose not to dwell on them, but rather on the positive changes we were able to create in this country, because that’s how I stay sane.
Will I be back? Can I go through this or something like this again? I really don’t know. For now I just want peace and space and silence.
Thanks for sharing the journey with me and being there through this. Your support meant so much to so many people. I’m glad we’re trying to care about the world and each other. This is the life I want to live.