Report from Nepal: ‘They were so happy ... to know that people care’
Carmel Valley residents Gary Gelland and his father Dr. Yuri Gelland were part of a team of volunteer aid that traveled to Nepal in April to assist survivors after a devastating earthquake shook the country. The father-son team spent 10 days in Nepal after the quake killed over 8,000 people, injured nearly 22,000 and reduced many remote mountainous villages to rubble.
On June 3, Gary Gelland shared the story of his eye-opening experience in Nepal with students at High Bluff Academy.
“It was intended to be a medical surgical trip but it evolved into something much more meaningful than I could ever imagine,” Gelland said.
Gelland had been a student at High Bluff in 2008 while he was attending Torrey Pines High School. He graduated Torrey Pines in 2009 and UC Santa Cruz in 2013 with a degree in molecular biology.
Gary’s father, Yuri Gelland, an anesthesiologist at Grossmont Hospital, has taken part in medical relief trips before, traveling to Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake.
Even before the earthquake struck, Gelland explained that living conditions in Nepal are not ideal and that the country is very vulnerable to disasters. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and a lack of toilets, sanitation and access to basic healthcare result in numerous health issues.
Malnutrition and stunted growth is a problem as the Nepali mostly eat dhal bat, rice and lentils, and the lentils are people’s only source of protein.
The 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal on April 25 and the Gellands were on a plane four days later. They were working with a team of volunteers led by Dr. Angela Basnet, an internist at the Scheer Memorial Hospital in Kathmandu who Gelland said is one of the most amazing and generous people he has ever met in his life.
When the Gellands and the team got to Nepal, its lack of infrastructure limited communication. The country is mountainous, and it was tough to communicate with and to access the rural mountain areas that had been hardest hit.
As aid was slow to come, Basnet had put together two months of her own salary (she earns just $750 a month) to purchase items like rice, oil, tarps and tents. With nearly $8,000 in donations from the Gellands, Dr. Basnet, Dr. Mearl Naponic from Grossmont, Dr. Della Penna from Kaiser and Roland Lussier from Florida, the group was able to buy enough to feed and provide shelter for 6,000 people for up to a month.
The group set off in ambulances full of doctors and paramedics with medical equipment and drugs donated by Grossmont and another vehicle toting the supplies.
Nepal doesn’t have highways so the convoy had to make its way on rickety dirt roads—the group was packed nine people deep in a truck for nine to 10 hours to reach the villages.
When they reached their first destination, Chautara, Gelland said it was alarming to see that the village had been leveled, buildings crumbled into heaps of debris.
“It’s hard to describe because Kathmandu seemed so normal but they were still pulling people out of the rubble in Chautara,” Gelland said. “People were still in shock.”
The next village, Pipaldanda, had received no government assistance at all since the earthquake because of the disorganized communication.
“We felt helpless because we brought medical supplies and they hadn’t had food for five to seven days,” Gelland said.
Due to the lack of aid, villagers were left to fend for themselves and were very angry at the government and as a result were blocking convoys traveling through their villages out of desperation until they got the help they needed.
“The desperation and anxiety on their faces, I had never seen anything like that,” Gelland said of the villagers they encountered who had no need for surgeries but needed food and water.
The team was able to give people all of the water bottles and Clif bars they had.
Many homes were destroyed but many people were afraid to go into the homes that had been left barely standing so they used tarps to set up shelters.
Gelland was able to join one of the paramedics on motorbike to visit some of the remote mountain villages to assess the damage. With their donated supplies, the team went on a three-day mission to villages that had not received any aid.
“They were so happy to come and talk to us and know that people care,” Gelland said.
Those who had nothing were so grateful for everything, no matter how small. Gelland said even giving people a Tic-Tac made their day.
During his presentation, Gelland showed images from a hospital in Dolakha where they had set up shop to care for patients. Unfortunately, on May 12 a few days after the Gellands returned to San Diego, there was a 7.3 aftershock and the hospital they were working in is completely gone. The village they had been working in had been leveled.
Gelland’s mind remains on Nepal and on the people he’s met—he’s become pen pals with many of the children. The experience is making him think about going to medical school again and has reinforced how important it is for people to give back and to help whenever you can.
He is encouraged and inspired by the example of Dr. Basnet, whose team recently oversaw the rebuilding of a school in Pipaldanda in three days.
“Living in Carmel Valley, it’s so easy to forget how fortunate we are,” Gelland said. “There are so many people out there who are truly suffering.”