Unsung heroes of compassion
The local guides, “Etho Metho,” Bhutanese for rhododendron, delivered us to the Paro airport terminal before 6 a.m., there to check in for the morning flight to Kolkata and Bangkok. Paro hosts the only airport in all of the mountain kingdom, mainly because there are only about four flat places in the 150-mile-wide country, and the other three are of questionable accessibility for commercial aircraft.
The beautiful modern terminal dressed in traditional colorful Bhutanese trim had one notable shortfall: It had been designed and built when the national Druk Air airline flew Airbus 319s. We flew in a larger Airbus, thus the terminal was bulging. Groups were ushered in stages into a secured room, checked in and checked out, and slowly managed to filter upstairs to a modern but cramped dining room.
My guide, dean of the Asian birding community, Ben King, and I patiently waited as people ate their Western breakfasts of eggs, ham, toast and the like. The wait staff could not keep up with clearing of tables, so Ben and I helped a little. So we helped ourselves to a 4-place table and waited to place our order. Two Western women in stylish dress apparently sized us up as well-mannered gentlemen — and may I say accurately so — asking if they could join us. After brief introductions, we struck up a polite conversation as we awaited tea and breakfast. My attempts to learn everything I could about who they were and what they were doing were greeted with warm smiles and cool responses. About all we got was that they were involved with a charity which provided health care services. One of the women was a nurse, Margrit Elliot, who lived in upper Washington state. Her older companion exhibited bearing and clothing subtly evidencing wealth and poise. My curiosity was piqued but good manners prevailed.
We all got on the Airbus and flew off the end of the Paro runway, climbing suspensefully to somewhat narrowly clear the nearest pass, stampeding yaks and entertaining farm children, and left Bhutan.
The next morning we shuffled across the covered bridge from Bangkok’s Hotel Amari to the airport to catch the 767 to Tokyo. I staggered down the aisle with camera and binocs and found my seat, serendipitously next to Margrit. I don’t think we stopped talking for more than five minutes during the six-hour flight. Margrit’s companion at the Paro airport was indeed wealthy, having just made a substantial donation to fund improvement of health services in Bhutan, and not wanting to have a bunch of American tourists knowing about it or making a fuss. Thus the anonymity. Margrit had facilitated this visit and donation. She was starting a tax-deductible organization to accept donations to fund volunteer surgical teams to visit remote parts of Bhutan to provide palate surgery and burn surgery. I had some experience with obtaining tax-deductible classifications from the IRS, so we had plenty to discuss.
In the course of the flight, she mentioned that there was only one surgeon in eastern Bhutan, Lotay Tshering, who was constantly on the road from village to village. His car needed tires and brakes. I promised to mail a check. Wouldn’t want a devoted doctor to fly off those steep roads because his brakes failed. This discussion led to a revelation that Margrit had been honored by the Dalai Lama for extraordinary contributions to the less-advantaged, during an annual celebration at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, sponsored by Wisdom in Action. The event was honoring “Unsung Heroes in Compassion.” Dr. Lotay was so honored in 2005, and we were invited to attend.
After getting home and mailing the check, I received a photo of Dr. Lotay with some literature about Margrit’s new nonprofit, which was shifting its focus exclusively to burn surgery. Those of us who do not use kerosene lamps to light the kitchen or light the way to the outhouse are not confronted daily with risks of tripping and burning ourselves or our children, but these risks are real in places like Bhutan. Untreated burn injuries are permanently disabling and disfiguring, in some cases interfering with the ability to eat or make facial expressions. Margrit brings physicians’ assistants and nurses from Bhutan for burn training at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, one of the world’s leading burn centers, and organizes teams of volunteer surgeons and anesthesiologists to go with surgical nurses to perform surgeries in Bhutan. She is raising money to equip a new surgical center in central Bhutan. I send her money when I can, because it all goes to maximize and leverage the contributions of these volunteers. It’s very satisfying.
Margrit just got back from a trip and sent me photographs and stories of interventions which must have been perceived as miracles by so many children, and their parents. But, the best part was the letters she received from the volunteer physicians after they returned to their homes.
From a plastic surgeon: “Dear Margrit: Bhutan is a beautiful country on many levels. I’ve worked in quite a few countries under many conditions and thought I had ‘seen it all.’ Well Bhutan was an eye opener. I’ve never seen physicians, nurses, medical staff and administrators demonstrate so much concern and compassion for their people … The exuberance and compassion for their people and country was contagious.”
From an anesthesiologist: “Dear Margrit: How can I thank you enough for including me on this remarkable team trip to Bhutan? I know the heart of your work and endless dedication is for the patients we treated, but I hope you realize what an amazing, life-changing gift it was for all of the providers as well.”
As soon as this unexplained clouding up of my eyes goes away, I’m writing another check.
Donations can be made to: Global Burn Care Institute, 3A Beach Drive, La Conner, WA 98257, or write to [email protected] for more information.