LOUISVILLE: It was long past dark as Ginger Lang bounced violently in the backseat of a four-wheel-drive truck, its headlights illuminating a rutted, landslide-strewn mountain road in the Himalayas. Lang held tightly to a 10-year-old Nepali girl, whose foot had been amputated after being crushed by the recent earthquake.
The 55-year-old Red Cross nurse from Kentucky had battled altitude sickness as she hiked for days with a medical team to deliver medicine and tarps to a remote mountain village. Now they were heading back down to Kathmandu with the child’s family to find a prosthesis and medical care that would be critical to the girl’s future.
“I drove back with the girl in my lap, the family’s baby crying and the mother throwing up,” Lang said. “It was quite a journey.”
Speaking by phone from the Hotel Yak & Yeti in Kathmandu recently, Lang said that her two-week trip aiding in the aftermath of a magnitude-7.8 earthquake — which hit Nepal on April 25 and killed more than 8,200 people and injured more than 19,000 — provided a firsthand look at the vast scope of the damage and challenges Nepal faces.
“The devastation is like nothing I’d seen before,” she said, arguing that media attention is already waning with some needs still unmet. “There’s a real rush to get people sheltered, because the monsoon is coming.”
The Bowling Green resident — a former neonatal and Air Force flight nurse, and now a grandmother — has served since 2013 as the Kentuckiana Region Red Cross disaster health service adviser. She has deployed domestically to the 2013 Colorado floods and 2014’s deadly mudslide in Oso, Wash.
When the quake hit last month, Lang was less than 200 miles away from Nepal in northern India, finishing a 30-day stint volunteering with a team of doctors who were providing care in monastery schools and remote settlements.
Centered in the Gorkha region, it struck around noon — destroying parts of the city, many villages and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. It also sparked avalanches on Mount Everest that killed more than a dozen people.
Although Lang wanted to help, she knew better than to rush into a disaster zone, where well-meaning volunteers without support can be a hindrance.
She returned to Kentucky, only to be pulled back by Nepal’s plight — agreeing to join a Nepali organization that was seeking doctors and nurses to treat quake victims. Within a few days, she boarded a jet and was touching down in the historic, high-altitude capital swarming with international aid groups.
“When you flew into Kathmandu, you could see supplies and crates of relief supplies sitting around the airport, waiting to get out,” she said.
In the city, she saw treasured UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the 100-foot Dharahara Tower lay in ruins, while some parts of the 1 million-plus city were left undamaged.
When the group was slow to form as expected, she and other medical volunteers joined a Nepali medical relief group, organized partly by Nepali medics who worked with mountain climbers and were in touch with remote areas where relief efforts had been spotty.
After delivering aid in rural valleys outside Kathmandu, Lang and a group of medics, porters and guides left on May 7 to bring medicine such as antibiotics, wound care supplies, tarps, rice and blankets to a remote Rumchet village, which required an eight-hour drive followed by a two-day hike into Gorkha, a hard-hit region near the epicenter of the quake.
“Everybody knew the remote villages were where devastation had occurred, and supplies hadn’t gotten there,” she said, noting helicopters had to be used to evacuate the severely wounded because many roads became impassable.
Lang and her team hiked up mountains and into valleys, climbing over landslides and passing villages where stone or brick and timber structures were left in piles of rubble. Nepalese army helicopters made air drops, but the supplies weren’t distributed evenly, she said. The damage contrasted jarringly with the beautiful vistas, she said.
But the hike was steep, at times treacherous, and Lang — lugging a heavy pack — began feeling ill in the higher altitudes.
“Many times on the trail I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here? What was I thinking?'” she said. “I recognized I was getting sick. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to be the weak link.”
Just a couple of hours hiking from Rumchet, Lang decided she couldn’t go further. Her hands were swollen and she was nauseous. The rest of the team took the supplies onward, where they found many still in need of medical treatment and supplies, she said.
Lang spent the night without the team in a village leveled by the quake, with no electricity, and where 22 people had died. She slept near four women staying under a tarp, where she shared a traditional dish of lentils, vegetables and rice. The hot day, filled with flies and braying donkeys, gave way to a cold and rainy night. But she was impressed with residents’ resilience.
“They’re kind of going with the flow,” she said. “They set up cooking fires outside, and they seem to be doing well, removing the rubble piece by piece.”
On the hike back down, Lang and the team heard a commotion in the trail’s bend. A family from a village nearby was carrying their crying daughter, Maya, 10, whose foot had been amputated by doctors days earlier after being crushed by a boulder during the quake and airlifted to Kathmandu.
But without money for a prosthesis, the family was returning to their village — and facing a difficult future. They and many other live in homes without plumbing, living off subsistence farming.
“For little girls in this environment to lose a foot, you can’t imagine,” she said. “Most of the people in the village raise animals and go up and down the mountains and carry heavy loads. I could only imagine how that would impact her life.”
The group offered to take the family to Kathmandu for further treatment and a prosthetic device. The family agreed, and after the spine-crunching journey that lasted most of the night — which Lang said the girl passed stoically — the group arrived in Kathmandu early in the morning.
The next day, Lang learned that the girl had been taken to the hospital and that efforts had been created toward funding a prosthesis, medical care and her education.
Her story caught the attention of CNN, and Lang said the girl left an indelible mark in her memory.
Exhausted, Lang flew home last week. She said Nepal needs are great. That includes the risk of waterborne disease because of poor sanitation, the deaths of livestock whose remains have gotten into waterways and the lack of access to purified water in many rural areas, a problem that existed before the earthquake.
Other needs include infrastructure, including more than 600,000 homes damaged and 140,000 destroyed, according to the United Nations. That could be especially difficult in Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest countries, even as hundreds of millions in donations have been pledged or provided by governments.
“What they’ll need is rebuilding of schools, homes, houses and roads,” she said. “It’s going to take years to recover. And it’s already falling out of the news.”
:: Kentucky Red Cross nurse Ginger Lang hiked recently in Nepal with a medical team to bring relief to villages hit by the recent earthquake.
(Photo: Courtesy: Ginger Lang)
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