Doctor puts focus on work in Nepal
Fundraiser to benefit hospital in village
Updated: September 29, 2010, 1:57 PM
The “greeting” party for the exhausted crew included a 5-year-old boy with an infected hip and a 105- degree fever, a woman with a severe case of osteomyelitis in her elbow, a 7-year-old girl with a distended belly and a 30-year-old woman in heart failure who needed a new heart valve.
“When we arrived, instead of a big welcoming ceremony, they said, ‘Here are the sickest people,’ ” remembered Johnson, a Buffalo resident. “It was time to go to work.”
And how do the sick know to go to a small village like Tipling when the visiting medical crew has arrived?
“They put the word out, and people will walk a day or two to get to the village,” Johnson replied.
That’s why Johnson, a physician with Kenmore Family Medicine, has been to Nepal 12 times in the last decade, to do the same thing he does in Western New York — provide the best medical care he can for people. And it doesn’t matter if the patients come from Buffalo or remote areas of Nepal that lack roads and bare necessities — especially when it comes to treating kids with scabies, scalp infections and malnourishment.
“Those children are just as important as our children,” Johnson said. “We’re all connected. We all belong to each other. Whatever happens to them happens to us.”
Johnson, 61, has become president of Himalayan HealthCare Inc. He has helped raise money to build a hospital in Ilam, Nepal. With the help of several organizations, he has led efforts to raise well over $500,000 for medical care in Nepal.
Now the man who has shied away from seeking any publicity for his medical work in Nepal is hosting his organization’s second annual fundraiser, starting at 6 p. m. Friday at Templeton Landing on the waterfront.
Organizers hope to raise $25,000 at the event, to help run the Ilam hospital and fund programs for remote villages such as Tipling. Anyone interested in attending the event or getting more information may contact Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org .
It all started for Johnson back in 1999, when he was looking for a new passion besides sailing and skiing. He told one of his three sons, Luke, that he had always wanted to go to Nepal, particularly to see its mountains.
“Dad, you’d better go,” his son suggested. “You’re not getting any younger.”
So in March 2000, Johnson
headed to Nepal with two of his sons. In one small village, in the Helambu region, they came upon people making wine in vats. After sampling the wine, Johnson tried to pay for it, but the villagers declined.
Instead, they asked him to see some patients, in a remote area with no roads, no electricity, no running water and no medicine. In such rural areas in Nepal, 88 percent of children were iron-deficient, 20 percent died by age 5, and 10 percent of women died in childbirth.
“How can it be that people living on the same planet didn’t have the access to the same things we want for our children?” he remembered asking himself.
After returning home, Johnson learned all about Himalayan HealthCare and decided to return to Nepal in November 2000. A civil war prevented him from going to the target area of Tipling, in north-central Nepal, so the group went to Ilam.
A crew of seven or eight doctors, along with cooks, porters and health care workers, spent three weeks in Nepal, with the doctors typically working 10-hour days and seeing 50 patients a day. And there was no Ilam Hilton; the crew stayed in tents.
That visit convinced Johnson and others about the need for a hospital in Ilam, a town of about 3,000 people in eastern Nepal.
“They had a government-run hospital, but it was disgustingly dirty,” he said of the facility, with its feces and its blood-splattered walls. “It wasn’t meeting the needs of the people.”
Several agencies — including the Ross Foundation in Rochester, Gulf for Good in Dubai and the Rotary Club of Grand Island — helped Himalayan HealthCare raise the needed $300,000 to build and staff the 12,000-square-foot hospital, which opened in 2004.
Since then, the hospital has treated 50,000 patients, serving 48 villages with a total population of 350,000 people. The hospital now has a surgeon, four other doctors and a dentist.
Johnson hasn’t gone public just to raise money through Friday’s fundraiser. Four other local physicians have joined him in going to Nepal, but he needs more doctors, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, a dentist and even a CPA and some fundraisers to join the cause.
Not a penny that has been raised is used for airfare or to fund the trek into remote areas. Johnson—whose only request in an hourlong interview was that any story not be all about him — doesn’t see the day when he’ll stop making the long, arduous treks into remotes areas.
“I won’t stop any of this until I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “It’s what makes me tick.
“How could I leave this?”