Queen’s alumni caught in Nepal earthquake

The Journal spoke to two Queen’s alumni who happened to be in Nepal in the midst of recent earthquakes. Sheppard was in Nepal for a placement in physiotherapy at a local hospital. Meanwhile, Casey Blustein, Artsci ’14, was backpacking across Nepal when the earthquakes began.

Phil Sheppard’s story

Nepal was hit by disaster, but Phil Sheppard, a Queen’s physiotherapy alumnus caught in the midst of the earthquake, said he was exactly where he needed to be. 

“I was expecting to be in these situations, but after they occurred, obviously. Not during an earthquake or during a natural disaster,” Sheppard told The Journal in a phone interview on the afternoon of the second earthquake. 

Sheppard, MSc ’12 (Biomechanics) and Msc ’13 (Physical Therapy), went to Nepal two years ago for a placement in physiotherapy, where he helped open an outpatient physiotherapy program at a local hospital. Sheppard recently returned to Nepal to work at the same centre. After finishing his placement, Sheppard embarked on a trek through the Annapurna and passed through the small town of Jhinu Danda when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit on April 25.

“I was packing my things, and then the whole house started to shake,” he said. “I heard the people in the room next to me run downstairs and get into the courtyard ... less than 30 seconds later, the roof collapsed.”

 

 

Sheppard said he heard the aftershocks and landslides that accompanied the initial quake. For the next few days, he tried to get to Kathmandu to help with relief aid. He finally contacted colleagues at Handicap International and The Red Cross, who sent him to the airport to assist the Nepalese army. At the time, the army was transporting injured patients to local hospitals.

The scene at the airport was chaotic and disorganized, Sheppard said. Sheppard set himself up to assess orthopaedic conditions and spinal injuries, and travelled between hospitals in the area to aid medical staff where he could.

 

 

When he spoke to The Journal, Sheppard had been in Katmandu for a week, living in a tent city set up outside the Handicap International headquarters. He said the living arrangement was an upgrade compared to the empty bag of rice he used as a tarp in Pokhara.

During the week in Katmandu, things began to revert back to some sort of normalcy. The night before Sheppard spoke to The Journal, he was permitted to sleep inside on a couch in the headquarters. Then the second earthquake hit. 

“Everyone in the street and all the traffic completely stopped. Everyone turned off their engines, and there was silence in Kathmandu — and then, all the sudden, everyone turned their vehicles on and then it was madness,” he said.

Sheppard said the second earthquake had greater effects than the first because fear from the first earthquake had just begun to subside. He added that physiotherapy has an important role in natural disasters, because injured people often require long-term rehabilitation.

“People lose attention after the media leaves, but it will take them years to recover from this.” 

Sheppard said he hasn’t had time to reflect and will probably deal with the emotional impact of the disaster when he goes home. He’s not yet sure when that will be.

“We’ll see what the need is. I’m going to stay as long as I’m needed.” 

 

 

Casey Blustein’s story

The other alumnus — Casey Blustein, ArtSci ’14 — was in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

After graduation, Blustein embarked on a yearlong backpacking trek, making his way to Nepal to hike the Annapurna Circuit. He said was hiking during the first quake and he barely felt it at the time. However, as he continued along the 10-day trail, he began to see the effects it had the Nepalese communities around him.

With communication lines down, he couldn’t contact his family during the days after the first earthquake. Blustein only realized themagnitude of the situation when he saw reports on the news days after the first earthquake.

Blustein’s parents, who had last been in contact with him on April 23, were anxious to hear that their son was safe and they launched a Facebook group on April 26. He said he finally contacted his parents on April 27.

 

 

Blustein stayed in Nepal and worked with a friend to help in relief efforts, which opened his eyes to corruption in the Nepalese government.

“We organized a supply truck, and got to a government checkpoint. We were already in the jeep for eight hours, and they turned us around,” Blustein said. 

“They’ve been taking the vast majority of aid and keeping it for themselves. Or they allow aid to villages that are politically friendly.”

He said he realized there was little he could do to help and decided to leave the country. He had a flight booked on May 12, which was the day of the second earthquake.

“I was right dead centre in Kathmandu ... bricks were falling around me. I was terrified. Women were trying to hand me babies, but there was nothing I could do. I just had to stand there. For two to three minutes after, [the ground was] like a seesaw,” Blustein said.

When Blustein spoke to The Journal, he was in India preparing to leave the country. He said Nepal was naturally beautiful and he liked the people he met, but the earthquake shook the idealized image of the country from his mind.

“There was a huge juxtaposition — it’s one of the most beautiful places [I’ve been], but there was all this sadness and terror”.

 

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