Determined to help: The altruistic Sydney nurse who raced to Nepal’s aid

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Renee Jarvie’s trip began like any other. She farewelled her family and friends and boarded a flight out of Sydney, Australia, bound for the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.

Some 15 hours later, close to midnight local time, Ms Jarvie, a registered nurse at Ramsay Health Care’s Westmead and North Shore private hospitals in Sydney, disembarked the aircraft at Tribhuvan Airport, the region’s main air terminal. It was June 26, the start of a week-long volunteering effort and she was excited to visit Nepal for the first time.

But when she arrived, the effects of the deadly Gorkha earthquake that struck Nepal nine weeks earlier immediately revealed themselves.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ms Jarvie said, recounting the car ride from the airport to her accommodation at a volunteer house in Dhapasi, one of the many affected villages in Kathmandu Valley. “The chaotic traffic, muddy, polluted roads and poverty on the streets was beyond belief.”

Workers inspect the damage to buildings in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck on April 25, 2015. It claimed over 9,000 lives and injured more than 23,000 people. Major cities, including Kathmandu, the capital and the nerve centre of the country’s economy, were badly damaged. Historic buildings and monuments that had stood for hundreds of years had been brought down.

“There was nothing left,” Ms Jarvie said. “The houses or other structures that were destroyed, there was nothing standing. There were buildings leaning to one side and the lower levels of seven story houses were completely crushed.”

The country’s rural areas were hit the hardest by the earthquake and its continuing aftershocks. Barpak, a tiny settlement of about 1,200 homes in the Gorkha district in western Nepal, lies at the site of the quake’s epicentre and was completely flattened. Other remote villages were badly damaged and relief efforts to those outlying areas were hindered by avalanches.

Nepal's rural villages were worst affected

Nepal’s rural villages were worst affected in the earthquake

The quake released such incredible energy that it moved Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak, more than an inch to the southwest and triggered a powerful avalanche on the south slopes. The slide claimed 19 lives, making April 25, 2015 the deadliest day in history on the mountain.

As Nepal reeled from its worst natural disaster since the Nepal-Bihar earthquake in 1934, Ms Jarvie was determined to help. “When the earthquake came, the Nepalese Nurses Association said the healthcare system over there was struggling,” she said.

“I emailed Volunteer Nepal and said I had a week off work over my birthday and I was happy to donate my time if they thought I could help. I didn’t want to hinder the recovery efforts. Sometimes when disasters occur everyone rushes over and it’s not always beneficial, but they said there’s things to do and people to see and it would be brilliant if I came.”

Ms Jarvie had planned to spend her annual leave in Hawaii, celebrating her 30th birthday. Those plans were hastily pushed aside when Volunteer Nepal approved her application. “I thought, ‘I can’t go to Hawaii when I can go and help people’,” she said. “That didn’t feel right.”

Ms Jarvie turned 30 while volunteering in Nepal

Ms Jarvie celebrated her 30th while volunteering in Nepal – a birthday she’ll never forget

Formed in 2004 by American Michael Hess, Volunteer Nepal aims to enhance the relationship between the Nepalese people and volunteers visiting the country. In the aftermath of the earthquake, its role was particularly pertinent.

Nepal’s hospitals, especially those in Kathmandu, were flooded with patients, with thousands in need of care for acute injuries. The healthcare system was so overrun that patients were being treated in the streets when hospitals could no longer cope with the demand.

“In some cases, there were no monitors at the hospitals,” Ms Jarvie said. “To see an ICU patient not being monitored was mind-blowing.”

Foreign volunteers from various countries assisted locals and provided a helping hand in the overall functioning of the hospitals. They were everywhere from the trauma centre to the help desk. Some even supported doctors during surgeries, while others helped out in schools.

Ms Jarvie worked with orphans and children with disabilities at EDUC-Nepal

Ms Jarvie worked with orphans and children with disabilities at EDUC-Nepal

Ms Jarvie was based at EDUC-Nepal – an organisation committed to improving the education of Nepal’s underprivileged children. There, she treated orphans and children with disabilities. Her task was made more difficult by the absence of technology and the equipment she has access to in Australia’s hospitals.

“I would immediately think back to what I would do back home,” she said. “That was impossible to do [in Nepal]. The simplicity of what I found, with no x-ray, CT, pathology or monitoring systems, I quickly realised I had to go back to our nursing training of look, listen and feel. Although language was a barrier, a simple smile or holding of a hand spoke a thousand words.”

When the earthquake struck, many Australians in Nepal immediately fled the country, returning hurriedly to the comforts of home in Australia. Ms Jarvie identified it as an opportunity to make a difference and did the opposite.

Ms Jarvie has plans to return to Nepal later this year

Ms Jarvie plans to return to Nepal later this year

“I’ve never been to a country like that before,” she said. “To see people living in sub-standard housing and with no money was confronting. But they were the happiest people despite what had happened to them. I often found myself getting teary because they were just so happy.

“Leaving [was the hardest part]. I don’t feel as if I did enough. I wish I could have helped more. It was hard to go.”

Ms Jarvie plans to return to Nepal later this year. The length of that trip, however, is not fixed. “I haven’t put a timeframe on it. You don’t know until you get to the villages how much you can do,” she said.

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