Humla Pilgrimage by Lillian Rieder

The plane was almost empty, so I lay across three seats and kicked my feet onto the window. I pride myself on being able to sleep almost anywhere, but the lead weights in my stomach pushed against me with every jerk of the plane. For eighteen sleepless hours I stared at the curved ceiling of the Boeing 777-300 until we landed in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Our group took two more hour-long plane rides until we landed in the remote village of Simikot, about 250 miles from Katmandu. We walked onto the tarmac outside the plane that led quickly off into the mountains.

I joined the trip of about twenty doctors and volunteers to see what another place so different from my own home was like. I wasn't entirely sure what my role would be there; I was the youngest of the group by about twenty years, and I definitely was not a doctor. In the clinic I helped a Nepali doctor, Tsering. He had a round face, and his age seemed to be right between an experienced medical professional and someone I might find myself arm wrestling with on a mountaintop.

On the first day in the clinic, I helped him set up his folding table and unwrap all of his herbs. The clinic had dirt floors and no lights, so we set up near the windows. Our first patient was an old woman, who was helped up the creaking steps carefully and reached the door of the room with gentle curiosity, and some fear. Tsering put a stool out for her, and held her wrists to feel her pulse. He had his head down, carefully listening to the rhythmic beats. As if her heart spoke to him, he sat up and started pulling out herbs from the array of plastic bags on the folding table. The line of patients stretched out the door, day after day.

He treated every patient as if they were his family, looking into the eyes of each one. I had never seen such intense care. As each patient approached us, I was the first person to ask what was wrong, and the first person to hear their pain. I was the first person to hear about a broken arm. Their definition of care and their definition of health was so different from my own.

The nurses in my school Health Office know me by name, and I'm there for everything from a slight cough to a dislocated shoulder. They treat me, but no treatment compared to how Tsering attended to each of his patients. His treatment was more than wrapping a sprained ankle, it was an exchange of compassion.

Every person that came up to us from the village opened their heart to us, whether it was a fifteen year old girl and her newborn baby, or an old shepherd who had walked two days with pneumonia to come see us. Their gratitude was immeasurable. For every person that Tsering treated, they responded with "I'll pray for you." These indigenous Tibetan people had never even seen a traditional Tibetan doctor, and it was their first time experiencing their own traditional medicine. Their inexhaustible gratitude encouraged everyone in the clinic to work hours longer than they had thought they could.

My job was to take patient history and intakes, but it was more than that. My job was to listen. I was the first person to hear their suffering, I was the first person to ask how they were doing. This was so much more than a procedure, it was an exchange of kindness. These people were able to live with ailments that were unimaginable to me, and their strength and courage inspired me to become invested in the strengthening of the Buddhist ethos in the mountains of Nepal.