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It has been 17 years since Susanne Volkmann and her friend Ines von Rosenstiel, a paediatric intensive care doctor, departed on their first humanitarian mission to Nepal. They boarded the plane with 650 kilograms of excess luggage, including countless boxes, chests and euro pallets filled with medical equipment, disinfectant, bandages, multivitamins as well as wound and treatment ointments.
Volkmann had travelled to the country for the first time as a tourist, eight years earlier. People lived in villages with scarce electricity, unclean water and poor hygiene conditions. The women there worked very hard, mainly in the fields. “Something needs to change,” she thought to herself at the time – and then set about making it happen.
From that point forward, Volkmann and her friend the Dutch paediatrician Ines von Rosenstiel, visited the country every year. Over time, they garnered more and more support: A team of up to 25 doctors and helpers from Germany, the Netherlands and England now work together on each trip to examine and treat the children. Where necessary, they administer vaccines and bring children with serious illnesses to be admitted at the children’s hospital. They have already been able to help over 10,000 children, from newborns to teenagers. “We also bring specialists along on every trip,” says Volkmann. Paediatricians, paediatric surgeons, orthopedists, ophthalmologists and even dentists have joined the team. “One young patient had to have 11 teeth extracted, otherwise the cavity would have spread to the rest of the body and led to serious illnesses that can be deadly to a child,” she reports. To prevent this, the team organizes hygiene lessons during which teachers, parents and children are taught how to wash their hands and care for their teeth properly. Household hygiene is also an important issue. The training is done in English, which is no problem for the Nepalese, because that is the country’s official teaching language. One of the helpers even learned Nepalese in a very short time, Volkmann remembers: “It was incredible!”
Together, the team developed their own software program for documenting the clinical examinations: The children’s height, weight, head circumference, past examinations and treatment are all recorded. “We make sure that consistent medical follow-up is provided for each of the projects, which typically last between three and five years,” Volkmann explains. The volunteers are able to keep track of 60 to 70 percent of the children this way. “It allows us to see how they get on in the long run.”
“You grow fond of the children so quickly,” says Volkmann. Two of them have a special place in her heart: The ones she sponsors and visits every year. She met Avina Tamang in a village school when she was eight years old. The young girl refers to it as her “lucky day”, which changed her life and that of her family. She belongs to the lowest caste in Nepal. Her parents are farmers, and she has four siblings. Her native village of Tipling is a two-day walk and a three-day bus ride away from Kathmandu. Now 21 years old, she studies Microbiology in the capital city, at one of the best colleges in the country. “It is wonderful to see how far she has come,” says Volkmann proudly. The financial support she provided for many years has even allowed the young woman to aim for a graduate course in Europe – in Düsseldorf, Germany, to be exact. “I thank God for having met Susanne! Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Avina. “She is like a second mother to me.” The young girl’s family also supports her in her plans, and Volkmann has long since made friends with them too: “When I visit Avina, the entire family makes the trip to Kathmandu just to see me for one day,” she says. They always bring homemade yak’s cheese as a welcome present. Volkmann’s father-in-law gave the yak to the family as a gift.
The fact that Avina, a woman in Nepal, has this kind of opportunity and may even get to study abroad is quite extraordinary. “Her family and her siblings supported her every step of the way,” Volkmann explains. “And Avina seized the opportunity she was given.”
Success stories like these are the highlights of her volunteering work, which is now focused primarily on social projects. However, Volkmann is also confronted with the darker side of these missions: “Seeing children die is just devastating,” she says. Tears start to flow as she explains that diseases which are benign in our regions can easily lead to death in Nepal. Malnutrition, sores, the measles. “You feel so powerless, so helpless,” she says. It’s a nightmare.” One particular visit to the burn unit of Bir Hospital in Kathmandu is seared in her memory. There are still lots of open fires for cooking in Nepal, which are very dangerous for children as they can easily fall in. Many adults who burn themselves on these open fireplaces are also treated at Bir Hospital. “Sometimes, not knowing any better, the Nepalese rub toothpaste into their burns. For lack of money, they don’t change their bandages. I have seen children at Bir Hospital who got burned and were then improperly treated by their parents. Since they couldn’t afford to change the bandages, the wounds were already infested with vermin,” Volkmann recounts.
The volunteers didn’t just provide medical aid: “The children are also happy just to receive a bit of attention most of the time, and their parents are thankful for our mere presence,” says Volkmann. Mothers proudly introduce their offspring, whom they dress in their finest clothes for the occasion. The Nepalese often show their gratitude for the support they are given through performance and dance. “It’s an expression of the friendliness that characterizes the people of this country,” Volkmann explains. The 53-year-old employee from Düsseldorf is fascinated by this outlook on life, which she sees in both children and adults there. She also describes the coexistence between Hindus and Buddhists as very peaceful. She particularly appreciates the country’s spirituality.
“I love to travel to distant countries. Nepal offers spectacular landscapes with breathtaking mountain ranges where you can hike to your heart’s content.”
Susanne Volkmann on her connection to Nepal
Most of the time, however, Volkmann visits one of the projects. Even though volunteering takes up a lot of her time, balancing it with her job as a medical-laboratory assistant was never a problem. This is because Henkel’s MIT initiative (“Miteinander im Team”, German for “together as a team”) supports employees’ voluntary engagements, including with paid leave or financial and material donations.
Since the start of the volunteers’ work in Nepal, the country has changed a lot. Divorce is becoming more and more common. Many women are left to fend for themselves with their children, not knowing how they will provide them with food, a school education or appropriate medical care in an emergency. Volkmann remembers the story of one family, which had a happy end: A pregnant woman came into the hospital and gave birth safely to her twins. One year later, she needed help again as her children were malnourished. “We were able to rescue that family, and we kept track of the children until they were three years old,” she says.
This example illustrates the importance of timely and high-quality medical support for pregnant women in a country like Nepal. One where the maternal mortality rate is still 20 times higher than in most western countries. Good medical care for mothers-to-be and for their newborn babies is particularly difficult to provide in isolated areas like Namjung. The small mountain village is a six-hour walk away from the nearest town and continues to suffer from the aftermaths of the 2015 earthquake. “For women and young children, the medical situation in the village is disastrous,” says Volkmann, who visited the site on one of her trips.
“In the Nepalese village of Namjung, the mother and child medical center is being built.“
Susanne Volkmann on the project supported by Henkel
Together with the German-Nepalese Society (“Deutsch-Nepalesische Gesellschaft”) and honorary consul Ram Thapa, who has been supporting Volkmann in her projects from the start, she now wants to tackle this problem. To mark the MIT initiative’s 20-year anniversary in 2018, Henkel is making a special donation to Volkmann’s project. The 50,000-euro contribution will be used to create a mother and child medical center in Namjung. The center will be equipped with a delivery room, where pre- and postnatal care will be provided and mothers will be able to give birth safely. “For women and children, the center is a simple matter of survival,” says Volkmann.
Looking back on everything she has experienced in the 25 years since she visited Nepal for the first time, Volkmann finds it difficult to choose a single favorite moment. Countless experiences moved her in some way. She says: “I have seen a lot of suffering – but so much sunshine as well.”