Things happen and plans change, especially when you travel.
So, when I was in Nepal recently (following my visit to Jiri where I delivered Absolute Essential earthquake relief funds) a visit to an organic apricot kernel oil supplier in remote Western Nepal suddenly had to be vetoed due to terrible rioting, instead I was invited to do extreme volunteer first aid work at fourteen thousand eight hundred feet!
This was my introduction to the yearly Janai Purnima festival that brings pilgrims from all over Nepal to trek high into the Langtang National Park in the Himalayas to bathe in the holy waters of the spectacular Gosainkunda Lake.
Some 10 years ago the Nepal Volunteer Organisation was formed to provide free health education and aid for around 20 events a year. At our camp, thousands of pilgrims were expected to make the journey (all Hindhu males are supposed to make the pilgrimage at some point in their lives). Many come without trekking experience or equipment and deaths used to happen every year. Since the volunteer camp has been in place, there have been no fatalities.
In natural health care, we have to be very careful of the claims we make for our medicines.
As one of five doctors among 50 volunteers (myself a doctor of Osteopathy and Naturopathy, and two of the other doctors still students), we were to be the only aid available for thousands of unbelievably ill-prepared pilgrims. Never before have I put pure essential oils (or myself) to the test in such an extreme situation.
I will leave it for you to decide how well they performed.
At the beginning I had very little idea of what to expect.
The volunteer camp presented itself at a time when I had been focused on the Absolute Essential education schedule, planning seminars and guest appearances to promote the many health benefits of pure essential oils. This unexpected opportunity seemed like an invitation to step out of the box (and comfort zone) and do the same thing for the people of an aromatherapy supplier country who might otherwise never know the benefits of the products they produce.
You can imagine what it took to get everybody up the mountain with equipment and tents. The camp was at 4380m,14,800ft… (just for New Zealanders - Mt Cook, our highest mountain, is 3800 metres, 12,300 ft,) so this was definitely one of my highest climbs. All this was happening to the backdrop of the recent earthquakes with the usual route very much patched together through a trail of damage and devastation.
We passed through broken villages and many, many landslides, and on our first night in a lonely, still-standing guest house, we spent a good half-minute watching from the outside as the whole thing swayed and shook from a tremor – something that apparently happened three or four times a day. If I felt worried, I took stock of the families living around me under tarpaulins just getting on as best they could and quietly affirmed to myself ‘my life is right and good’.
There was nothing else to do but trust.
After a day of sharing a toilet with over 50 people, eating rice with dhal and water-boiled oats for breakfast (thank god for the local honey), the ascent began.
We followed the historic path through the back of the village and up to the first hill. As we left the tree line behind us the air began to get notably thinner and the physical challenge began.
I faithfully applied Sinus Clear to the inside of my nose, crossing my fingers that its ability to aid oxygen absorption would help me to stay the course without succumbing to altitude sickness (because when that happens the only solution is to go down).
I became the object of much curiosity as the only woman and westerner on the trail and with many questions, a marriage proposal (!), and much friendliness, I hardly noticed the day go by.
But then a fog crawled up the mountain and wrapped us in its mystery.
Visibility was down to one metre or less and then it began to rain. A thunderstorm descended with the coming night and we hastily slipped our way to the closest guesthouse, watching danger rise as waterfalls and rivers were created everywhere around us.
Despite a damp and crowded night with little sleep, the next day I felt pretty good completing the ascent to base camp.
There were medical tents set up here but I opted to continue with two doctors and 20 volunteers to the lake site. And what a beautiful walk it was. With so many privileged views I've experienced of the natural world, this was right up there as one of the most memorable.
Nepal in all her glory quite literally takes my breath away.
Twenty breaths walking, three breaths resting. For two hours we plugged away at the trail which was no mean feat, made apparent by the many Nepalese people we treated on their way down who were unable to tolerate the altitude.
Finally we arrived at Gusankunda, shrouded in thick cloud. The air was thin and cold but quite spectacular. As we sat in a tiny teahouse resting, the clouds lifted and revealed the stunning beauty of this sacred site. I needed no Sanskrit translation to understand I was in a place worthy of ancient worship.
One of my first patients was my friend the police commander (who had offered up his son for a husband). He had fallen and hurt his neck and shoulder - he was feeling dizzy and had a bad headache.
With my official volunteer vest on, he quickly adjusted his perspective and allowed me to work my osteopathic skills on him. I worked with trusted Peppermint essential oil for muscular pain and also for headache – such a handy item to have in my pocket – and when I met him early the next morning, he said he felt fabulous.
And from there, the real work began.
It was not only the number of people walking, stumbling or being carried into our tent, it was also the variety of conditions we had to care for and how very unprepared the people had been for their journey.
The most common issue was altitude sickness and its many unpleasant symptoms such as vomiting, headaches and dizziness. And there were blisters and other skin conditions including fungal infections and old infected wounds still unhealed from the earthquake (with hopes to heal them in the holy waters), coughs, colds, fevers, diarrhea, toothache, frostbites, cramps, blood pressure… to name but a few.
Our tent was 2 x 3 meters and contained six chairs and one table for medicines and equipment. Most of the medicine was donated by drug companies and the Nepali doctors administered as they saw fit. We also had my collection of pure essential oils and they were popular, useful, instant, safe, and versatile, with an immediate benefit.
As they utilised different pathways to the medication, we were able to administer both in most cases and only needed oils in some. I gave the doctors and volunteers a crash course in how, why, what and when - nothing more effective than learning on the job under pressure.
And the pressure was definitely on. Every time I turned around there were another three people waiting for help.
Some were urgent and needed attention immediately, others waited patiently for their turn. When the two doctors left to switch shifts with the doctors at base camp I was left alone for four hours in charge of the volunteers.
It was the hardest day’s work I have ever done in my life.
The easy work was the first aid I demonstrated: a drop of Clove Bud oil to ease toothache, a few drops of Lavender True to disinfect a blister, a wound, or apply to a bruise, Eucalyptus rubbed on the chest and back to ease a cough, cold or fever.
One woman came with a badly infected wound on her leg. She said it had been troubling her for months. When she lifted her sari to show me, I was stunned to see festering green/blue pus and much of the surrounding skin eaten away. We washed it with water, soap and tea tree. When dried, we applied 20-40 drops of Lavender True. An hour later we repeated the whole process. The next day she was greatly improved, pain-free and healing. We repeated the Lavender application and gave her the bottle to take home.
Another young man came in with an overwhelming headache and vomiting. One drop of Peppermint on his tongue stopped the vomiting and one drop rubbed into his temples relieved his headache within 3-5 minutes. The next day, so impressed by his own recovery, he was up and helping the volunteers.
The story that stands out is the old man who was carried in to the crowded tent at the end of the long day. Barely conscious, wet and freezing, suffering from hypothermia, he had slipped off the narrow path.
His blood pressure was 50/30 and he was barely breathing. We sprung into action and administered first aid for hypothermia. We removed wet clothes and wrapped him in blankets, which were now few and far between. His stomach was extended massively, he was throwing up and had a terrible headache - all signs that his systems were shutting down.
We could not give him medication as he couldn't keep it down and we didn't have oxygen immediately available.
Kanchan, the student doctor, kept him conscious and spoke to him calmly. I put a drop of Sinus Clear on his fingers and asked him to place it inside his nostrils. And if I ever needed convincing of the instant power of therapeutic aroma, this was the moment.
Within 30 seconds he started to breathe more easily. Within a minute he released loud burps which took away the pressure in his stomach and enabled his lungs and head to equalize and his headache eased. We repeated the application and he became more conscious and started to talk. His blood pressure came up to 85/ 55 and there was a palpable pulse within five minutes.
Finally, someone brought a bottle of oxygen and he was saved and on the rise to health. It was a close call. We had a couple of others that same night and now we felt more confident in what best to do.
We worked on into the night with only a couple of hours rest. We awoke to music, dancing celebrations and bathing in the sacred waters.
Amazingly, this body of mine still managed to keep me together enough to make it through the packing up and hurried descent as the weather started to close in again - we went down a gruelling 4,800 ft in just six hours. And despite being beyond-tired, I even found it in me to stay up a little longer for some weary but heartfelt celebrations with the team.
Without a doubt, this was one of the most exhausting and rewarding experiences of my life. Whenever I'm in Nepal, I am nourished in my soul by the spirit of the people I encounter.
It was incredibly affirming on a personal level to tackle so much and discover the considerable depths of my own resources. And also on a professional level, to challenge the efficacy of therapeutic plant oils and finish feeling triumphant, as a key member of a formidable medical emergency team.
As a pilgrim on my own journey, I definitely scaled the mountain too.
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