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Family doctor and McMaster researcher survives Nepal earthquake

Keyna Bracken was in Kathmandu, Nepal when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked the South Asian country last weekend. Bracken, an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine, has written a harrowing first-hand account of her experiences. This is her story.

On Friday, April 24, I was thinking I should write about my week’s experience in the Kathmandu Valley as I was leaving for Indonesia the following morning. I didn’t get to write anything, as I had a lovely Nepalese dinner at a landmark restaurant in the old quarter in Kathmandu with a colleague from the University of Calgary who was also working on common goals in Nepal. We had just met that day at a meeting with the CEO of the Nick Simon Institute (NSI), not realizing that each other was in Kathmandu simultaneously.

I was going to write that the NSI was actively helping to fund the Nepali government commitment to general practitioners (GPs) trained especially to work in remote rural areas all too common in Nepal. Various Canadians, notably regional assistant dean Karl Stobbe — familiar to the McMaster family and others across various faculties of medicine — have been donating their time to assist with curriculum development and training of the first cadre of rurally based GPs. I had gone to Nepal for the first time to consider curriculum development or any other initiative that could help address maternal child care in this low resource setting.

After dinner, the cab wound its way through narrow alleyways — really not streets by North American definition — to Durbar Square in Kathmandu where Christine and I said our goodbyes and pledged to collaborate in the near future. I went on to the Patan area, equally old and narrow, where my guest house was. These squares are UNESCO heritage sites and I had taken many pictures of the magnificent temples. This is where the script abruptly veers from anything I could possibly have imagined.

The next day, at Tribhuvan International Airport, I made my way through security quite quickly. The airport has one runway and limited capacity, and is not known for efficiency. I was sitting in the lounge starting to work on my reflections of Nepal and suddenly became aware of a stillness and dense quiet, if you can imagine, that I immediately remembered experiencing in Haiti as aftershocks. In a split-second, a noise like a subway train coming into the station hit my ears, and my chair jolted sharply sideways. Then a massive up-and-down violent wave tossed the chair from under me. I could hear cracking and then taste dust as the ceiling started falling around me. I crawled under the table trying to find a place to protect myself, thoughts of what I had been told in Haiti flashing through my now-racing mind.

Then silence. I looked out and saw several other people in the lounge beginning to stand up and then heard shouting. Just as my brain was processing this was an earthquake, and I grabbed my bag and laptop, I felt another spine-snapping lurch and sickening roll underneath my feet. Back under the table I crouched, hearing the crack of mortar, and ominous groans of straining metal. My vision was clouded with dust from fallen ceiling tile and concrete reduced to powder.

I remember thinking I may not get out of here, but at least I was in a concrete building. I heard people shouting and my befuddled brain at last recognized the urgency of the situation and heart pounding, legs trembling, I fled. I ran through the abandoned security gate avoiding heaves in the floor, fallen debris and choking on the dust, found myself out with the hundreds of people on the lone runway.

“I could hear cracking and then taste dust as the ceiling started falling around me. I crawled under the table trying to find a place to protect myself, thoughts of what I had been told in Haiti flashing through my now-racing mind.”

I had made it out of the building. I was alive. The small two-story airport was still standing, as was the control tower, although empty. As I stood on the runway, I could barely see the city of Kathmandu, only a short cab ride away, due to the clouds of dust from collapsed buildings. The air was thick with particles and I heard many people coughing. I recall being dazed and confused on the runway with hundreds of others as we waited, not knowing what to do. There was no leadership, no announcements, just people being offloaded from planes onto the crowded runway, a gradual parade of officials and planes circling the airport.

I sat or stood for over three hours on the runway, cheered with others as two small planes landed as they must have run out of gas, but after two or three more sickening jolts very effectively maintaining a tachycardia most unusual for me, I realized that “we” as a runway collective were not going anywhere. I knew after being out there for so long that my scheduled flight on Thai Airlines to Bangkok had not arrived, and finally I found someone who knew something. “Yes, the airport was closed and all flights are cancelled. Go back through security and collect your baggage.”

Amazingly, the power was partially on in the airport through emergency generators, so dust covered, I located my bag and walked with legs feeling as though I just got off a roller coaster and into the chaos outside the airport. This is where rational thought in times of crisis, revered in medicine, comes in handy. No phone or wifi signal and nowhere to go. I figured going back into the old city was a poor plan due to the precarious housing I had happily walked by only hours before, and what if the streets were blocked? The swell of people moving aimlessly, along with the crowds gathered outside the airport was like a human fortress to get through, but somehow I did, found a cab and then could not tell him where to go.

He was about to leave and in my rising panic, I turned toward a stranger who walked up and spoke to the cabbie in Nepali. He asked me in English where I wanted to go so I explained I needed somewhere safe near the airport. As it turned out, this stranger was on the same flight and although originally Canadian, had not lived in Canada for over 30 years, dividing himself between the mountains in Nepal and Tibet.

We made our way back to the local guesthouse he had just left, the streets full of frightened people with collapsed homes randomly lining the roadway. The guesthouse was empty, due to persistent aftershocks and fear of building collapse. People gathered in the park behind the large Hyatt hotel, bringing bedding, food and blankets from what remained of their homes. No one I could see seemed physically hurt. If I could have assisted someone, anyone, perhaps that would have helped me deal with my anxiety, threatening to burst from me, with the malevolent shakes of the ground.

The next 12 hours passed either sitting in the park or as it became very cold, lying on the ground floor of the guesthouse. The owner opened his business to anyone, and crowds of displaced people shared rice, peanut butter (I never leave home without it), eggs and tea. People of all cultures speaking many languages communicated their terror, yet immense relief that we were all still alive. If not for the kindness of strangers and my fellow Buddhist Canadian, I would have been alone, rattled emotionally and physically by repeated powerful aftershocks. I struggled to separate rational thought from fear as my fellow floor mates predicted another big one before daybreak.

Three times during the night, as the ground heaved yet again, we ran for the door having cleared a pathway just in case. If I was going to die in another earthquake, then at least I would not be alone. I desperately wanted to reach my family but there was no power, no signal. I was marginally consoled by my earlier ability to get one tweet and one Facebook message out as I cowered under the table in the airport, but I was not at all confident about making it through the night. Social media can be a marvellous thing. Note: give my daughter less grief about her usage in future.

Dawn arrived, and the harried ensemble of people — sleepless with repeated tossing of the ground and the mournful howling of the many stray dogs — shared milk tea at the guesthouse. We heard planes taking off in the night, so my Canadian compatriot and I left for the airport early, hoping to get on the rescheduled flight. The airport was a chaotic crush of people, cars and motorcycles. The crush of desperate people all trying to get inside the two doors of the terminal was adding insult to injury, and I was pushed, pulled and crushed by the crowd. My now steadfast travel companion helped drag me though the crowd and I crawled under a barrier to get though the door arriving at the first security checkpoint, bruised and battered as if I had gone ten rounds. If I ever wondered about my survival instinct, I need no longer.

Several times as I waited for the flight, the ground again seemed to toss indignantly. But the next big jolt was saved for when I was sitting on the plane. Another subway train coming into the station, another violent up-and-down movement with simultaneous lateral tossing — this time in a 747. The terminal building, damaged but mainly intact, again forced its patrons onto the runway. I fought against a rising wave of panic that I would again be forced to leave the airport and that I would, once again, be stranded.

An agonizing hour passed as more passengers ran to board the plane and the runway was inspected for cracks. At last, we were taxiing. As the plane lifted off, the dust clouds were visible over the entire Kathmandu Valley. I was one of the lucky ones. Lucky in the sense that I had survived the major quake by virtue of my location, and lucky that I had a flight already booked. I wept for those less fortunate, the loss of life, of history and opportunity.

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