Saturday, 25th April was a day the 400 staff of the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, our partner hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, will never forget.
Like thousands of other residents, the surgeons, nurses, and medical staff spent the day scrambling for safety as buildings collapsed around them, power and water were cut, and the streets were thrown into chaos after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit the capital.
More than 20 employees of Tilganga lost their homes in the terrifying ordeal. Although everyone survived, countless acquaintances died in the disaster which has shattered this Himalayan nation, already one of the poorest countries in Asia. This week another strong earthquake shook Nepal, claiming at least another 70 lives.
Yet within hours of the first earthquake, their thoughts had turned to those most in need: villages in remote regions who had lost everything.
As soon as mobile phone reception had been restored, the hospital’s executive director Dr Sanduk Ruit was shoring up a plan to turn it into a relief centre. “We needed to keep the eye hospital open as usual, but also get to the real victims, the people who have lost everything and have no food, without delay,” he said.
Within 24 hours, a volunteer team had swung into action, ordering bulk supplies of rice, dhal, lentils, instant noodles, salt and water purifying liquid from the city’s wholesale centers. Staff turned up on the Sunday to pack them and load them onto trucks, where they were driven as far as possible into outlying areas devastated by the earthquake.
They co-ordinated with army helicopters to pick up the supplies where the roads were unpassable or blocked by landslides. Medical supplies and emergency shelter was also provided.
More than 500 earthquake victims with head, face or eye injuries from the earthquake were also brought into Tilganga for treatment.
Dr Ruit said: “This has left the country with close to eight thousand dead, and just as importantly, more than 500,000 people shelterless. The houses have been flattened to the ground. It’s really a very sad picture up on the mountains where many of the villages are far-flung and difficult to get to.”
“Friends from all over the world have shown their concern and so much compassion, and that has made us very strong,” he said.
Dr Ruit said it would take years for people to re-build their lives. “We need to help them re-build their houses, their families, their lives, and their morale. With your help, our team will be able to help them to heal.”
Impact of aftershocks
Anil Subedi, The Foundation’s Nepal manager, said the atmosphere in the hospital was subdued as the food packages were being packed onto trucks. “Everyone was still uneasy about all the aftershocks – there were 30 to 40 or so that continued for days afterwards.”
“Some of the staff who had lost their homes were sleeping outside on tarpaulins.”
Mr Subedi vividly recalls the moment the earthquake hit, just before midday. He was walking down the stairs of his apartment with his wife when he felt the ground lurch violently under him.
“At first I thought there was something wrong with me,” he said. “I thought maybe I was weak or I was going to faint.
“But then when I got outside I noticed everything was shaking, and the buildings were swaying from side to side and toppling over. People were screaming and running, babies and children were crying and I realized it was earthquake.”
“We thought this was the end. We didn’t think we’d survive it,” he said.
"It's a terrifying sound. It's hard to describe it. It sounded like a deep rumble of a mountain falling down that did not stop. It echoed in my ears for days"
Taking casualties to other Kathmandu hospitals was “just devastating,” he said. “People were crying and dying in front of us, it was just horrible to see. “
Thousands of villages have been devastated as have up to 90 per cent of clinics and schools throughout Nepal. “The suffering of people here is just beyond any words,” Mr Subedi said.
A candle-lit vigil for victims was also held outside the hospital.