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Sherpa hospital in Himalayan heights

By Joanna Jolly
BBC News, Kunde, Nepal

Kunde hospital in Nepal
The hospital serves 8,000 patients

For the Sherpas of the high Everest or Khumbu region of Nepal, keeping healthy is a struggle.

The climate is harsh and the area is isolated. There are no roads and sanitation is basic.

That is why the one hospital in the region, the Kunde Hospital, is vitally important.

Set up in 1966 by Sir Edmund Hillary in the mountain town of Kunde at a height of 3,840m, the hospital is mainly funded by foreign donations.

But for the past 10 years, it has been staffed and run totally by local Sherpas.

Dr Tsering Wangdi Sherpa, 27, is currently running the clinic, which serves 8,000 patients from the four main valleys of the Khumbu district.

"It's very important to have this hospital," he says.

"Before it was built, the health system here was absolutely bad. There were a lot of problems with birth control and immunisation. People had very bad infections and the hygiene was really bad," he says.

'Unusual'

Dr Tsering has only been working at Kunde hospital for the last seven months.

But he has been connected to the clinic all his life.

He was born here in 1983 - delivered by a Canadian doctor who was volunteering at the time.

His father used to work as a health assistant to the foreign doctors, but thanks to a grant from the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation of Canada, he was able to complete his own medical degree and became the first Sherpa doctor to work at Kunde.

Dr Tsering Wangdi Sherpa checks a patient
Dr Tsering has been connected to the hospital all his life

"It was pretty unusual for my father to become a doctor," says Dr Tsering.

"It was very expensive to afford the training. The Sherpas live around Khumbu region which at the time was not very well-developed and most people did not have the money to afford good schools and colleges."

Dr Tsering's own training was also funded by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation.

He describes the New Zealand mountaineer as a "godfather" to the Sherpa people for building the hospital and helping the local community.

Dr Tsering works six days a week, running the 12-bed clinic from nine to five most days.

The small stone hospital, built on the side of a mountain with a view of the snow-capped mountains, is able to deal with minor surgeries and has a laboratory to conduct basic tests.

On the morning of my visit, Dr Tsering's first patient is a man with an ingrown toenail.

He arrived at the clinic late last night and Dr Tsering performed basic surgery on him, removing the nail and cleaning the wound.

This morning he changes the dressing and checks for infection.

'Important'

His next patients are both women who have come for their three-monthly contraceptive injection.

"The family planning service has been really important in improving the health of the people and encouraging them to have smaller families," says Dr Tsering.

Patients come from far and wide
His patients come from far and wide

One of the women has walked two-and-a-half hours to reach the clinic - nothing unusual for many patients in this region.

If the hospital did not exist, she would not know where to go for contraception, she said.

The clinic charges a basic fee of 20 Nepali rupees (around 25 cents) per visit - whatever service is being provided.

The fee has stayed the same for the last 20 years and Dr Tsering says that it means that everyone can afford treatment.

One important area in which the clinic has improved health is by providing regular iodine injections to the local population.

"Thyroidism was a big problem 40 years back because there was no iodine in the region, so we had many cases of goitre and cretinism," says Dr Tsering.

"But after Sir Edmund Hillary set up the hospital we no longer have this problem," he says.

Break

But as the Khumbu district has become more affluent, the hospital is now dealing with different diseases.

"We've seen an increase in diabetes in those villages that are economically better," says the doctor.

The view from the hospital is spectacular
The view from the hospital is spectacular

"Their diet is getting worse and they have a more sedentary lifestyle because they have people working for them."

As morning clinic ends, Dr Tsering and his colleagues take a break to drink hot sweet tea and eat freshly-baked bread.

Sitting in front of the hospital, the view is spectacular.

The snow-covered peak of Ama Dablam dominates the skyline. The sound of lamas chanting drifts down from a Buddhist monastery high above them on the mountainside.

"It's been really great working up here," says Dr Tsering.

"Sometimes it's difficult because everything is in our hands. When things get complicated, we have to use all our knowledge and all the equipment we have to help the patient."

"But otherwise it's really peaceful working here," he says.



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