It seems only weeks ago but it was more than a third of a century.
In the spring of 1981, I traveled to Nepal in Central Asia for a magazine story about an extraordinary Canadian medical missionary — a doctor — who ran a small hospital on the side of a terraced mountain, perched high above the clouds.
Like all amazing reporting assignments, this one was so cool in so many ways. It was also full of unknowns. There were some minor risks, I suppose, but beyond lay rewards that would sparkle forever.
The ‘Doctor Helen’ story took up four pages of Today Magazine, a supplement to Canada’s major newspapers in the 1970s and early 80s. With the highest circulation of any publication in the country, Today was king. The article — read by millions — is coming right up in this post. If you’re up to it, you can read the entire story by clicking on the pages.
Today Magazine arrived with the Saturday edition of:
- The Toronto Star
- The Gazette [Montreal]
- The Vancouver Sun
- The Edmonton Journal
- The Citizen [Ottawa]
- Winnipeg Free Press
- The Calgary Herald
- The Spectator [Hamilton, Ontario]
- The London Free Press
- Times-Colonist [Victoria]
- The Daily News [St. John’s, Newfoundland]
- The Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, New Brunswick]
- The Whig-Standard [Kingston, Ontario]
- The Standard [St. Catherines, Ontario]
- The Brantford Expositor [Ontario]
- The Lethbridge Herald [Alberta]
Helen Isabel Huston [pronounced: Houston, like the city] was born in Innisfail, Alberta on 20 September 1927. Her mother was a school teacher and her father a United Church minister.
Because Helen’s family was often on the move, she lived in a number of small communities across Alberta.
A highlight of her teenage years was attending a Christian youth camp, Canadian Girls in Training, better known by its initials: C-G-I-T.
Helen Huston graduated from medical school at the University of Alberta [Edmonton] in 1951, becoming one of Canada’s first female doctors. She interned at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton and Vancouver General Hospital.
Now that Huston was a full-fledged doctor, she had some big decisions to make. The most paramount — what to do with her life — was an easy choice. She decided to follow her heart and become a servant of the Lord, and she figured the best way to accomplish that was to help the sick and dying in the poorest parts of the world.
The young physician would become a missionary. To use a Helen-ism, “Her heart was on fire for Jesus.”
Huston’s dream was to work in China but that never happened. In 1955, she landed a job at a missionary hospital in Central India. She spent five years there, then moved about 800 miles north, to Nepal, where she worked at a small cholera clinic on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
The clinic was run by an ecumenical organization called the United Mission to Nepal [UMN], headquartered in Kathmandu.
In the 1960s, “Doctor Helen,” as she became known, traveled to the ‘sticks’ — Amp Pipal, a sprawling Nepalese village of thatched-roof huts in the shadow of Liglig [Liglikot] Mountain … and the world’s tallest peaks, the Himalayas.
There, Huston worked at a small medical clinic. Word spread about the care available at the clinic and it wasn’t long before staff could not cope with the crush of patients. A new facility was needed.
Like the clouds that rolled into Amp Pipal, money started to arrive for a new hospital.
An Alberta farmer heard about a unique hospital project in faraway Nepal through a Sunday evening church radio broadcast. He fired off a $1,000 cheque to help pay for construction. Huston promptly sent the farmer a ‘thank you’ note. The farmer responded by sending a further $9,000.
Gerald Hankins of Calgary, Alberta, who went to medical school with Helen Huston, also did a fair amount of fund-raising for the tiny hospital.
Helping out as well was Doctor Carl Friedricks of the UMN Hospital in Tansen, about four or five days’ walk south of Amp Pipal. An extra $10,000 had been raised for the building of the Tansen Hospital, and so the extra cash was sent to Amp Pipal.
The Today story on Helen Huston was released the day after Christmas, known in Canada as ‘Boxing Day’: 26 December 1981.
Huston was an exceptional physician, hospital administrator and Christian. She was also exceptionally modest.
Months would pass before Huston read the magazine story, in part because she was living in a remote village on the other side of the world and the mail took a while to arrive. Mind you, this was well before the techno age of computers, scanners, smartphones and the Internet. But the main reason the doctor held off reading the story was that she feared it did not give full credit to the Lord. Huston wanted little or no recognition for herself, and certainly no glory.
This medical missionary clearly wanted to be “under the radar.”
Huston’s friends and colleagues assured her the publicity was fine, and not to worry about it. It was good for the cause, they said, and it was positive PR for the organization that funded her hospital, United Mission to Nepal. Even so, the doctor who’d been tagged with the monikers of a “female Albert Schweitzer” and “Canada’s Mother Teresa” remained skeptical.
This post is about: a] the story behind the 1981 magazine story … and b] what has happened since to Doctor Huston and to her hospital at Amp Pipal.
Note: unless specified, all photos in this post were taken in 1981.
Where is Doctor Helen Huston today and what’s she up to, you ask? Well, Helen turned 89 in September 2016 and until early December 2015 she’d been living by herself in an older but well-maintained, three-story apartment building near the university in South-Central Edmonton.
Long retired from the medical profession, she now needs medical assistance herself. The young woman who once ran effortlessly up rock-strewn trails in Nepal is now elderly, living in Big City, North America and slowly getting around with the help of a walker.
Aches and pains aside, Huston doesn’t seem to fret about getting older. She realizes that old age is a privilege denied to many, and she’s happy she can still do some church work. More on that later.
Let’s begin this post by slipping back to the early 1980s when ‘Doctor Helen’ appeared on the pages of Today Magazine. To read the article, click on the individual pages.
THE STORY IN TODAY MAGAZINE
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GIRL?
At the very end of the Today story, there’s an account of a young girl being carried up a mountain path to the foreigner’s hospital. Readers wanted to know what happened to the child. Did she live or die?
At the time, I just didn’t know.
Turns out, she made it. Her appendix had ruptured but doctors in Amp Pipal were able to save her.
THE DEATH OF MOON LOVE
Moon Love was the name of the baby Nepalese girl who died from pneumonia. I’d reported that her remains were set on fire after being doused with gasoline. Not gasoline, says a development worker who worked for many years in Nepal. He says the fuel used in that part of the country — where there were so few vehicles — would likely have been kerosene, not gasoline. A small point, yes, but for three decades it has bugged me that I didn’t get it right.
Also, an official with the Canadian International Development Agency [CIDA] objected to the comment that seeing a witch doctor had been “a waste of time,” as his agency was trying to work more closely with local medicine people. This didn’t bother me at all. It was a deadly waste of time.
A SECOND HOSPITAL DEATH
With any reporting assignment, there’s always information that doesn’t appear in the finished product — usually because of a lack of space [sometimes meaning the piece needs to be cut back to make way for advertising]. The editors at Today Magazine in Toronto cut out the story of the death of a second child at the Amp Pipal Hospital.
Here’s what happened: a boy, about seven or eight I reckon, was being operated on which required him to be put under. To everyone’s surprise, he suddenly died on the operating table — and to this day I don’t know why. Did the anesthetic cause his heart to stop? Who knows?
I was walking around the Amp Pipal Hospital with my 35mm camera when I stopped in my tracks outside an operating room. The door was wide open and I could see a doctor pumping frantically on a boy’s chest. The lad was on a table and his legs jerked with every shunt. The doctor said not a word — but his eyes, appearing above a surgical mask, screamed, “Trouble!!!”
At the time, I didn’t think a whole lot about it and I went on my way.
I returned shortly to see about a dozen patients and visitors standing in a large semi-circle outside the operating room. They were staring at a Nepalese woman who had her back to the wall and was wailing, just giving it, tears running down her face. It was her son who died on the operating table.
No one was within six feet of the woman. Totally distraught, she slowly slid down the wall and laid on the floor where she continued to sob uncontrollably. Nobody walked over to help; everyone just stared in disbelief. No one seemed to know what to do.
I raised my camera to get a picture, but a man standing to my left gently elbowed me in the ribs. He spoke not a word but shook his head from side to side. I got the message and lowered my camera.
In my mind, I have replayed many times the scene of a young woman sliding down the wall in slow motion, her face contorted with unimaginable grief. It’s one image I can’t get out of my head.
HOW THE HUSTON STORY CAME ABOUT
Since my early 20’s I’ve had an interest in international development, once known as “foreign aid.” Part of the appeal simply had to do with traveling to faraway places. The more screwed-up these countries were, the more my curiosity was piqued in seeing if the locals could be lifted out of that mess.
Perhaps that’s too condescending from western white folk, like me, but there you go.
Nepal held more appeal than most countries because of its majestic Himalayan Mountains, those ‘aluminum sentinels,’ Mt. Everest and all that. Another reason I was interested in the small, land-locked country was that as recently as the 1950s, Nepalis had no contact with the outside world. I wondered how they got by, and what they thought of westerners.
And of course, Nepal was where medical missionary Helen Huston hung her hat.
The foreign development people in Canada talked about Doctor Helen Huston the way ice hockey fans talked about superstar Wayne Gretzky. To say they looked up to her would be an understatement.
I fired off a letter to Huston, letting her know that I planned to travel to Amp Pipal to do a magazine story on her. For the life of me, I can’t remember if she replied. I bought airline tickets anyway.
DOCTOR HELEN’S FATHER
Before leaving for Nepal, I traveled to Camrose, Alberta, southeast of Edmonton, to meet Helen’s father, William [Wil] Huston, the former United Church minister.
Camrose is a pleasant community — and a giving one: in the early 1980s it had the highest foreign-aid donation per capita in Canada.
Wil and I hit it off. His eyes sparkled when he talked about his daughter in Nepal. The man was especially proud of what she had accomplished.
[Photo by Author at William Huston’s nursing home in Camrose in 1981]
Wil recalled his daughter’s youth. She was an inquisitive child, he pointed out, who took an interest in anatomy. He recalled when his wife, Edith, a school teacher, was cutting up a chicken on the kitchen counter and young Helen stood on her tippy-toes to check things out. Pointing to parts of the chicken, she asked, “What’s that, Mom?… what’s that? …”
Helen’s ‘apostle seed’ was planted when missionaries visited the Huston Family in Innisfail, Alberta, with spell-bounding accounts of their work in far-distant lands. Helen was hooked.
Will never got to Amp Pipal, but Edith did. By the time I got involved in the Helen Huston story, Edith had passed on. To use a Doctor Helen phrase, she’d “gone to Glory.”
DEALING WITH THE MEDIA
I pitched the Helen Huston story to three magazines: Today [Toronto], Reader’s Digest [Montreal] and Western Living [Vancouver]. Each expressed great interest. Even though the Digest offered more money, I chose Today because it had more readers.
Before the project wrapped up, I had also voiced some short radio pieces on Doctor Helen Huston for CBC Radio in Edmonton and Calgary; CKUA Radio [Alberta-wide] and wrote articles for a string of Alberta weekly newspapers. I then did a lengthy item for Broadcast News, the wire service and audio arm of The Canadian Press, plus a magazine piece for Western Living on the joys and dangers of hiking in Nepal.
Did I miss anyone? Oh yes, a story for a newspaper in Chicago, another in West Germany. And for a group of Alberta churches, a slide show with music on development in Nepal.
Anything to cover expenses and make a little coin.
When shopping the Huston story, I saw the best — and the worst — of the news media.
I approached ITV [now Global Television] in Edmonton about working with them to produce a feature on Doctor Huston. A honcho there was most interested and we had a series of meetings in his large office about how to go about this. I shared everything I knew about the Alberta doctor, including a lot of background information that could be used in a documentary — plus a list of all my contacts [with their phone numbers].
I was initially slated to be the producer, but the boss at ITV soon changed that to co-producer. At the next meeting, I was downgraded further … to writer — and even that was eventually downgraded to “thanks for the story idea, but we’re doing this without you!” The way the guy put it, I’d given birth to the project, but the ‘child’ had grown and ITV was now its “guardian.” What a disappointment to see such [un-Christian] behaviour; it was usery at its finest.
I also discovered that ITV had phoned Canadian Save The Children, a non-governmental foreign development agency based in Toronto, to get the agency to pay for its flights to Kathmandu.
A call to a good contact at Save The Children scuttled that plan. I then eliminated ITV from the project.
Months later, I personally delivered more free “research material” to ITV Edmonton — a copy of Today Magazine with the 4-page spread on Doctor Helen. ITV never did get to see Huston at work in Nepal.
MUSIC FROM NEPAL
Care for a little music from Nepal? Here is Bharat Nepali, J.B. Lama and Bharat Budhathoki and “Magic of the Himalayas.” The number, which I found on iTunes, runs 6:10.
In the spring of 1981, I flew to Nepal with a portable Sony stereo tape deck, extra batteries, two Canon 35mm cameras, a few lenses, some ultraviolet filters, plenty of slide film … and as many background notes as I could muster.
Having two 35mm cameras in downtown Kathmandu proved to be a pain in the ass. Keep in mind that back then, the per capita income of a Nepalese worker was only a few hundred dollars a year. So when hawkers in downtown Kathmandu spotted a foreigner with two cameras, one with a long telephoto lens, they assumed that person was loaded.
I ended up buying a miniature khukuri knife, which I still have. It’s my letter opener.
I had been well advised by a foreign aid worker in Central America that when in the Third World, never buy flavoured ice-water treats. She called them “cholera on a stick.”
Another memory I have of Kathmandu was that one ounce of marijuana sold for $1.00 U.S. No, I didn’t buy any dope, although Canada Customs wasn’t too sure. When I returned to Canada they went through my luggage with a fine tooth comb … simply because I was returning from Nepal.
For thousands of years, it was perfectly okay to smoke pot in Nepal. Only 50 years ago or so — when the American hippies invaded and spent their days sitting on the temples downtown getting stoned, picking their noses and contemplating the meaning of life — did the authorities in Nepal make smoking pot semi-legal.
FROM KATHMANDU TO AMP PIPALThe bus ride out of Kathmandu was a thrill and a half.
I sat at the back, in the corner. I yanked the window up to get a better view and to take photos. I’d read stories about scores of people in places like Pakistan and Nepal who were killed when their bus veered off a mountain road. I thought, how does that happen?
On the ride to Dumre, I got the answer. No guard rails!! The passengers clinging to the roof of my bus not only had the best view but the best chance of surviving if we blew a tire and left the road.
The bus ride gave one Nepali teen motion sickness and he started to throw up. The lad darted to the nearest open window — mine — and just got his head out the window when he vomited, with the bus moving at a good clip. I held up my Samsonite attaché case to protect myself from the spray. That took care of my urge for a snack.
It was quite the hike to Amp Pipal, lots of beautiful scenery — but if one was carrying heavy supplies, quite an ordeal. That is why the missionaries hired locals [usually women] to carry their heavy loads. For some gals, that’s how they made their living. Up and down those trails, rain or shine.
They carried the loads on their backs, in large sacks held in place by a wide strap across the forehead. Some women had carried loads for so long that their skull was permanently indented. Crazy.
SPRAWLING HOSPITAL COMPLEX AT AMP PIPAL
DOCTOR HUSTON’S HOME
Helen Huston occupied the top floor of this two-story house which she shared with a young nurse from New Zealand.Surgeon Gerald Hankins of Calgary spent more than a decade in Nepal doing missionary work, including a 6-week stint in 1970 at Huston’s hospital in Amp Pipal, which he described as an “heroic little hospital.”
“With the most slender of facilities, they did their best to care for a seemingly-endless procession of village peoples who had nowhere else to go. Only their unshakeable faith in God kept them going; they believed strongly that God had called them to this work and therefore they would try their best.” – Gerald Hankins
Hankins wrote a book called A Heart for Nepal about his good friend. “Helen Huston,” he says, “personifies the great Christian virtues of generosity, humility, thoughtfulness, and grace.”
DOCTOR HUSTON & STAFF AT WORK
Helen Huston was a busy lady. She was usually up early and when she returned home from the hospital, depending on the hour, she used a flashlight to show the way.
Here are some photos of Huston at work and of the Amp Pipal Hospital …
Trained Nepalese staff took pride in having a hospital job … and wearing a nurses’ uniform.
FOREIGN TEACHERS AT AMP PIPAL
Some of the best “unsung” heroes in our lives are teachers. That’s the way I saw things, and I suspect the children of Amp Pipal were no different.
Here are two outstanding teachers who served well at Amp Pipal … Tony Bouverie-Brine of England and Else Furthmüller of Germany. Photos by Author.
THE CHILDREN …
I get along well with children. I enjoy their company; the ‘drawing card’ being their kindness and innocence. Dealing with the kids in Nepal, I was quickly reminded that laughter was the same in any language.
It was a privilege for the children of Amp Pipal to be able to go to school. Think about that for a moment.
The youngsters around the hospital took delight in playing with simple things, such as an empty film container … or having a souvenir pin from a country they’d never heard of.
THE AMP PIPAL CHILDREN TODAY
I’ve often wondered what became of these kids … what are they doing now? Did they stay in Amp Pipal? Did they move to Kathmandu … or out of the country?
Thanks to Chris Hale — son of U.S. surgeon Tom Hale, mentioned above — I tracked down two of the children. In 1981 — the year I wrote the Today story — Chris was 13 and living in Amp Pipal with his missionary parents.
The boy in the centre of the above photograph is Yam Bahadur Thapa who went on to study at a technical school in Singapore. He and his wife Niru have a daughter; the family lives in Kathmandu. Check out Yam’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/yam.thapa.7505?fref=ts
Yam’s younger sister, Sona [far left in the group photo] is married and also lives in Kathmandu. Here’s her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sona.thapa.7?fref=pb&hc_location=friends_tab&pnref=friends.all
And where is Chris Hale, you ask? Hale, an accomplished musician, is living in Toronto, Canada. His website: http://christopherhalesitar.com
OLD HOME MOVIE FILM – 1970s
Here’s Super 8 film shot by the Hale family in Amp Pipal in the 1970s.
The beautiful background music [Himalchulu, a Nepali Christian folk song] is performed by Chris Hale.
MY HOME WHILE IN NEPAL
I stayed in a small house at the missionary compound, which surrounded the hospital and the school. As you can tell by the photo, my unit was spartan but clean and orderly. Nice, just the way I like it. I didn’t spend much time there, except to sleep, go through my notes and clean my camera equipment.
The house was usually occupied by a young missionary from Finland, but she was on furlough [leave]. Her husband, Norm, from Ontario, Canada, worked at Amp Pipal on a water cleaning project. Norm was a good fellow.
I spent most of my time at the hospital visiting with locals in the village or with other missionaries involved in the Gorkha Project, particularly school teachers Else Furthmüller [Germany] and Tony Bouverie-Brine [Britain].
Tony was an avid photographer. We took a lot of photos. Tony took delight in showing me the small, wood-burning stove he made from mud. Again, the folks in Amp Pipal — whether local or foreign — improvised to get by.
Tony eventually returned to Britain. Last I heard the man was back in Nepal, doing foreign-development work in Kathmandu.
Else, a great communicator and humanitarian, returned to Germany, married a preacher and had two children. Else usually sends an email at Christmas and when we get together in Germany, she makes a wonderful meal and her hubby treats me to good German wine.
While in Nepal, I experienced my first and only earthquake. The quake — not a big one, can’t remember where it registered now on Mr. Richter’s scale — struck in the middle of the night. I was sound asleep and at first it seemed that somebody was shaking my bed. The bed became a hammock and I swayed back and forth, wondering what the hell was going on.
When I realized it was an earthquake, I tried to make my way to the bathroom [I’d read that of all the rooms in a house, the bathrooms were the safest during an earthquake because of the plumbing] … but I couldn’t walk; it was as though I was drunk. The tremors suddenly stopped, and for a moment all was quiet. Then the dogs started barking.
Damage at Amp Pipal was limited to a cracked concrete foundation. I can’t recall where the epicentre was located.
One evening, Tony and I got talking way too much … and by the time I hauled out of his place, it was quite late — and dark. I mean pitch dark. No street lights, remember. Not to worry. I had my trusty flashlight. I came to a fork in the road — but took the wrong path. I was lost. I spotted what I thought was my house and cut through the bushes — unaware of what was ahead — and I tumbled down a steep embankment, cutting my arm.
It was more embarrassing than anything. I eventually made by way to my house … but being a closed, missionary compound, news of a reporter getting lost and taking a tumble spread like wildfire. The locals loved it.
Back then, it was unlawful for foreigners in Nepal to convert the locals to Christianity. I sensed there was always tension over foreigners having a different faith. Mind you, it was nothing that boiled over into massacres like those happening in other parts of the world.
POLITICAL UNREST & CONFLICT
When I was in Nepal [Spring 1981], Maoist rebels were active in the western part of the country … and they’d organized a day of protest. There was to be a total work stoppage — and I mean ‘total.’ No one was to work that day; none of this “essential services” stuff.
Doctor Huston knew the protest was coming [there is a reference to her thoughts about the demonstration in the magazine story]. To make sure I wasn’t around to see any conflict, she scurried up to my house at around five in the morning — with a packed lunch. “Byron,” she said, rousing me from a deep sleep, “today’s a great day to climb Liglig!!” I shook the cobwebs from my head, grabbed my camera gear and off I went.
I hadn’t walked very far when I was surrounded by a group of more than a dozen men, most in their 20s. Oh oh. Trouble. Protestors. And some were ticked. A man I took to be the leader stood on a rock as high as a one-story house and, like a Hollywood stunt man, jumped to the ground, regained his balance and walked straight towards me. He was definitely on a mission, no pun intended.
His eyes remained fixed on the foreigner.
The protestors gave the man a look of respect, stepping aside as he made towards the foreigner. The jumper stood directly in front of me and began his lecture. When he finished, his teeth were clenched in anger. I knew virtually no Nepalese, but his glare and the tone of his voice signaled he wasn’t a ‘happy camper.’ He was trying to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be working.
Mimicking with my hands — even worse than an Italian with a twitch — I indicated that I was climbing Liglig to get some pictures. I then tried to leave, but Mr. Jumper blocked my path by extending his arm. I looked around, saw that no one had weapons and so I clutched his arm and slowly lowered it. He didn’t resist, nor did he say anything.
In the end, there wasn’t much of a confrontation. As I made my way through the crowd, some of the protestors looked at one another with puzzled faces as if to say, “Well, what do we do now? …” Or, maybe they said, “Holy Budda, this guy is as dumb as a sackful of hammers.”
I continued down the trail and did not look back. I was afraid, I admit, but did not want to show my fear.
I hadn’t gone for more than 20 minutes when I head the sound of baseball-size rocks bouncing off the ground. The stones were missing the target — and I was the target. “What the hell is going on?” I wondered. The assailant was an older woman, and she was standing about 50-60 feet away. She was some angry. The old gal screamed and hurled rocks as fast as she could pick them up.
She was either part of the rebel group or a wannabe. Or, who knows, she may have been frustrated at having been cut by the New York Yankees. The good news was that her aim was poor and the more rocks she pitched, her aim got worse. I trudged on.
The bizarre experience added a whole new meaning to getting stoned in Nepal.
In any case, neither confrontation was a big deal. I had just been to a war zone in Nicaragua and the Maoist rebels at Amp Pipal couldn’t be compared to the well-armed, bonafide soldiers I had dealt with in Central America. Those soldiers carried heavy machine guns, and they meant business.
In a few years, however, the situation in Nepal would change dramatically. In remote areas such as the Gorkha region [where Amp Pipal was located], the rebels had guns and they pulled the trigger, killing both locals who didn’t agree with their point of view and some foreigners who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, I’d been lucky that day. ‘Somebody’ had been looking after me.
I’ve often wondered what happened to the Maoist leader I met on the path in Amp Pipal early that morning. Did he morph into a killer?
I finally reached my destination: the top of Liglig, 4,790 feet above sea level. Crowning the top of the mountain were the ruins of an ancient palace. Just beyond the edge of the cliff, I discovered an old, cast iron bell.
According to Wikipedia, Liglig was where a royal dynasty got its start and where the famous Gurkha soldiers got their name. It’s believed that Liglig comes from Lingling, a Maga word meaning “clear, pristine, beautiful view.” That it surely is.
The story from one of the foreign teachers was that in days gone by, when Nepal was a series of many kingdoms, to determine a leader the candidates [all male of course] would line up in the valley and start running to the top of the mountain. The first to reach the pinnacle would be the leader — for one year.
No one paid attention to fat politicians back then because there weren’t any.
Man, what a view!!
I was able to get some great shots the Amp Pipal Hospital, the countryside and those cool Himalayan peaks. I was using a Canon 35mm with a 135 fixed telephoto lens. For some of the shots, I used a ‘doubler.’
I was amazed at how the huts blended into the terrain. At a quick glance, one would not think that thousands of people lived in homes scattered about the mountainsides.Thanks to a tripod, I got in a couple of “selfies” — but one backfired. [Blame it on the extreme heat and fatigue]. I got too close to the edge [see photo to see where I was sitting], lost my balance and tumbled over the side. Wait. The picture is deceiving. I landed on another ledge just a few feet down. When it comes to heights, I’m a big chicken.
LEAVING AMP PIPAL
After a week in Amp Pipal, I left with two United Nations workers from Belgium. The men were passing through and they offered me a lift into Kathmandu. I said, “sure thing.” Their four-by-four was parked on the other side of the suspension bridge.
We began by walking together, down a long path to the bridge, but we drifted apart. I lagged behind because … well, I was snapping pictures.
Being farthest back gave me a chance to observe something interesting: approaching in the distance was a young Nepalese couple, a man and a woman. The man stopped one of the Belgians and asked him something. The foreigner looked at his watch, and the couple moved on. Same thing happened with the second Belgian. He looked at his watch and the couple moved on.
Now it was my turn. The young Nepalese guy shouted in halting English, “What-time-is-it!!” I checked my watch and gave him the time. His girlfriend beamed with pride. Then I got it! The guy was showing off to his girlfriend that he knew some English. The little devil.
MEETING DOCTOR HELEN AGAIN
Helen Huston returned to Canada in early 1982, shortly after the story appeared in Today. She was on furlough, home to visit her ailing father in Camrose, southeast of Edmonton.
The City of Camrose decided to put on a special event at one of the churches for missionary Huston. I received an invite from the Mayor, and so I headed off. Even got dressed up in a suit.
Helen sat at a table in the front. She got a standing ovation.
Helen Huston retired in 1992. The hospital where she had worked for so many years was eventually taken over by the Government of Nepal. In 1993, she returned to Edmonton where I was working for CBC Radio.
THE AMP PIPAL COMMUNITY HOSPITAL TODAY
A German NGO [non-governmental agency], NepalMed, now runs the hospital with direction from the Nepalese government. Through donations, NepalMed buys medical equipment and helps pay for upkeep.
The following three images of the Amp Pipal Community Hospital are pulled from the hospital’s website … http://www.amppipal.de. Website? It seems weird that a hospital in remote Nepal has a website, but there you go. Notice the address of the website: de, which means it is located in Germany.
I can see that Helen’s old hospital has expanded from my time there in 1981. The building is more modern and the equipment has improved.
Amp Pipal is also spelled “Ampipal.” Not sure why that’s so. I’ve gone with the two-word spelling since that’s the way it was in the early 1980s.
REPORTER AND DOCTOR REUNIONS
Helen and I get together every now and then, more so lately than in years gone by. We talk about old times and new times.
The first time I saw Helen after she retired, she was hunched over on a sidewalk in front of her apartment. She’d slowed down and the years were showing. I’m sure she thought the same of me.
In 1995, I called her to see if she wanted to get out for tea and biscuits. She said sure. When I arrived, she wasn’t quite ready and so I waited in her living room. To pass the time, I checked out pictures that covered her walls, snapshots of old friends and colleagues. Not surprisingly, all the scenic pictures were of Nepal.
What I was looking for was the rare Order of Canada medal Helen had been awarded. But I couldn’t find it.
“Where’s this Order of Canada?” I asked. Out came Helen from a back room, mumbling, “Now, what did I do with that? …” Hmmm. Most people would have had the prestigious medal framed and proudly on display. Not Helen Huston. She rummaged through some drawers, pulling out this and that. “There it is!” she exclaimed, turning my way. Here was the country’s most prestigious medal and Helen had it stuffed away in a drawer.
We talked about how things were going in Nepal, and I sensed a sadness that her old hospital had been taken over by the Nepalese government. There were other emotional changes in Helen’s life too. She had quit the United Church and joined the Baptist Church. However, she remained heavily involved in church causes.
One night she phoned, asking if I could do something to stop the killing of young Somali men in Edmonton. I said, “Helen, these shootings are all drug-related.” It didn’t really matter to me. Actually, I couldn’t care less. But to Helen it did matter. She wanted to know if I could talk to the drug dealers and try to stop the killings. Helen longed for the killings to stop.
Around noon on Thursday, 21 August 2014 Helen and I drove to Edmonton’s River Valley. We sat on a picnic bench surrounded by tall trees. Save for the noise of the odd siren and the rumble of a transit train, it was a country setting in the middle of a big city. We talked for more than an hour — mostly about Jesus. Surprised? Helen did most of the talking, for which she apologized. No problem.
In this one minute clip, Helen talks about Her Saviour and His forgiveness …
The good doctor and I have a habit of phoning each other on March 4th. Some time ago, I called her on that day and said, “You know, Helen, today is the only day of the year that’s a command!” “Huh?” she said. “Yup. March forth!” It’s become an annual joke.
It’s hard to say how many ‘march forth’ jokes we have left. On one of the last times we spoke, Helen revealed she was a member of what she called a “geriatric club.” “We’re all dying,” she said, with a tone that spoke more of exasperation than revelation, “… and these guys don’t know the way.” It reminded me of the bumper sticker, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Die Without Jesus!”
On Thursday, 21 August 2014 I dropped around to her apartment. I pulled up a chair at her small kitchen table. On the table was something that brought back pleasant memories of our first meeting, in Nepal, decades ago: fresh-cut amaryllis. “Smell these,” she said, pulling the flowers closer to us.
She asked if I wanted anything to drink. “I’d like a nice cold beer.” She smiled and said, “That sounds familiar …”
I asked Doctor Huston if she had any regrets, pointing out that most doctors who graduated in her class [well, those who are still alive] are better off financially … with lake-side cottages, trips abroad, air-conditioned homes, comfortable lifestyles … all that. She looked my way and uttered just three words: “I am rich …”
When I left her apartment I took note of a drawing on the back of her door, and so I snapped a picture of it with my iPhone. When one thinks of the adversities in our lives — in particular the life of Doctor Helen with her challenges and setbacks in poor countries overseas — this cart00n pretty well sums things up.
AN EVENING WITH DOCTOR HELEN
It was entirely ‘spur of the moment.’
I went around to Doctor Helen’s apartment on Tuesday evening, 25 November 2014 with a small gift: A pair of safety spikes for winter footwear to help prevent the old gal from slipping on the ice and hurting herself. Old people, brittle bones, etc.
We spent a good 15 minutes or so trying to figure out how the contraption attached to her boots [we’re both seniors, remember] … but once we got that sorted out, we were good to go.
But wait. Helen had a couple of things she wanted me to take care of. One job was to install a chain on a ceiling light in a small storage room, the other was to put a screw in her dining room wall so that her clock could be hung properly. Easy stuff.
We walked to my car in the dark parking lot with Helen holding onto my arm for support. At one point she remarked about beautiful it was: cool air, clear sky … with a soft glow from the street lights highlighting the snow-covered evergreen trees.
We drove to a Tim Hortons coffee shop, about a mile away. Inside, Helen continued to hold onto my arm as we gave the cashier our order: soup, buns, hot chocolate and French vanilla coffee.
“This is my girlfriend,” I said to a puzzled-looking cashier. Looking around the crowded shop, I added, “… just hope her husband isn’t here! …” The highly religious Helen, leaning forward to make her point, quickly countered. “He’s only JOKING!!”
After we took our seats, Helen spoke about a man [a “non-believer”] who once gave a talk at her church on a book he’d written — about God — and how that book had “led thousands to the Lord.” “Maybe you’d like to read it,” she offered. I said, “Fine with me.”
I gave Doctor Huston a 17-ounce jar of Tim Hortons hot chocolate, a gift from Don Hume of Campbellton, New Brunswick. Helen asked, “Would you please put Don’s name on the lid so I’m reminded it’s from him?” I did just that.
We returned to Helen’s apartment, but I didn’t stay long; I had chores to tend to.
I pulled out my iPhone and snapped this shot of Doctor Helen Huston resting on her walker …
As I opened the door to leave, it occurred to me that we should talk a bit more about my quip to the cashier at Tim Hortons. “Hope I didn’t get you in trouble,” I said. “That’s all right,” she assured. “What I mean,” I went on, “… is that I hope she didn’t think you were chasing young men!”
The good doctor tilted her head back and laughed out loud, just the way she did in Nepal many years ago. “Helen, there’s only ONE way to get around this problem of yours,” I offered, “… you should go to church more often.”
‘A HEART FOR NEPAL’
For the definitive story of Helen Huston, read the book A Heart for Nepal: The Dr. Helen Huston Story, written by Doctor Gerald Hankins of Calgary. Hankins, a notable surgeon and missionary, served 12 years in Nepal.
The man spent considerable time with Huston in both Nepal and Alberta.
Today Magazine went out of business in 1982, a year after the Helen Huston story was published. Today had followed in the footsteps of other popular weekend supplements, the Weekend and Star Weekly.
At the time of the assignment, I ‘ate and slept’ Nepal. Nepal was always on my mind, and I was often trying to find ways to sell a story on Huston or Nepal to make a living. I simply got fed up with it. About 20 years would pass until I had the interest to see any of the hundreds of slides I’d taken while over there. This was clearly a case of “overdoing” a project.
MORE RECENT IMAGES OF AMP PIPAL
EARTHQUAKE – 2015
On Saturday, 25 April 2015 a massive earthquake struck Nepal, claiming thousands of lives. The quake — measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale — was the worst ever to hit the small country.
The epicentre, halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, was near the community of Lamjung. Lamjung is about 15 kilometers northwest of Amp Pipal — “as the bird flies.”
Remarkably, no one in Amp Pipal died in the earthquake, although some houses were heavily damaged.
According to Amp Pipal native Birod Wagle, however, it was a totally different story in the nearby communities of Simpani, Ratdada, Darimchaur and Boharagaun. There, says the Kathmandu-based chartered accountant, most of the houses were flattened.
There was little damage to the hospital at Amp Pipal. “Just a few cracks,” reports Doctor Huston after new information arrived from a contact in Nepal on Monday, 27 April 2015. The source: Chris Hale, who spent his youth in Amp Pipal. His father, Tom Hale, was a surgeon at the Hospital.
“That’s great news,” Huston says, of her old hospital being spared, “the prayers of many have been answered. Hallelujah!”
The hospital is now trying to treat many who were hurt in the earthquake.
It was a job and a half trying to get information on the status of the Village of Amp Pipal and the hospital.
On the morning of Sunday, 26 April 2015 — and on the following day — I placed calls to a cell phone at the Amp Pipal Hospital [which has spotty phone service at the best of times] — but there was an immediate busy signal, which may indicate the mobile phone is out of service. I’m not sure how that works.
I also put in numerous calls to Nepalmed, the organization in Germany that now runs the Amp Pipal Hospital. No one picked up.
I then placed a message on the Facebook page of the Amp Pipal Hospital.
On Sunday morning [Edmonton time] I put in calls to both Doctor Helen Huston [Edmonton] and Doctor Gerald Hankins [Calgary] but at that point, neither had heard a word from Amp Pipal.
That same day [Sunday 26 April 2015], I spent much of the afternoon with Doctor Huston, at her apartment. We spent hours on the phone with a long-time foreign development worker and friend of hers who spent 25 years in Nepal, including three years in Amp Pipal: Walton [and Ruth] McCaslin of Meyronne, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Walton McCaslin emailed Huston photos showing damage in Amp Pipal. McCaslin found the images on the Facebook page of Doctor Ian Smith, who had also worked in Nepal. The photos were taken by Suman Shrestha. And that, folks, is how social media works.
Through another contact in Nepal, Doctor Huston reports that the Patan Hospital [on the outskirts of Kathmandu] — where surgeon Hankins had worked for years — did not collapse. Doctor Hankins’ reaction: “Good news amongst a lot of bad news …”
Click here http://www.businessinsider.com/drone-footage-shows-utter-devastation-after-massive-nepal-earthquake-2015-4#ixzz3YY9UpXKi for a Business Insider story on the quake devastation in Nepal. The article contains video shot from both a drone and from a helicopter. Thanks to broadcaster Randy Marshall of Edmonton for this piece.
On Monday, 18 May 2015, Reuters reported the death toll from both quakes stood at 8,583 with hundreds still missing. More than 17,000 have been injured.
One survivor told USA Today that being in the earthquake was “like being on a boat in high seas.”
The quake also killed people in neighbouring India [at least 72] and China [at least 25]. Those were the early figures.
For George Varughese’s eye-witness account of the earthquake in Kathmandu, click here: http://asiafoundation.org/in-asia/2015/04/29/in-quakes-wake-the-price-of-political-disarray/
In October 2015, 88-year-old Helen Huston feared she might have pancreatic cancer. The pancreas is one organ where doctors can’t operate.
In the beginning, it didn’t look promising. Six months earlier, there was no sign of a growth … and to make matters worse, her brother, John, 79, died from pancreatic cancer.
Doctor Huston remained positive. She began to pray, and she wasn’t alone. Once word got out about her health, people around the world began to pray for her.
Fearing the worst, Huston kept a stiff upper lip. “I realize how much Christ suffered on the cross,” she said. “God has freed me from the fear of death.”
Before ending our phone call, she remarked, “We have a God who cares … so hallelujah! Isaiah 55.” “What’s that?” I asked. “Look it up.”
And so I did …
On Tuesday, the 17th November 2015, Doctor Huston was put on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton’s west end.
She wasn’t terribly happy about it. It was her neighbour from across the hall, Linda Murray, who noticed that Helen was in distress [severe back pain] and phoned 911. Friends do things like that.
People calling Helen’s phone number got no pick-up, and emails sent her way went unanswered. Few were aware of what had happened.
On Sunday, 22nd November, I received emails from two long-time supporters of Doctor Helen — one in Saskatchewan, Canada and the other in Nepal. They wanted to know what was going on.
That’s how I spent the better part of Sunday, trying to find the answer. I called Helen’s apartment; no response. Went around to her building and buzzed her unit. No answer. I then went to a Baptist church where she’d gone in the past. She wasn’t there, but I sat through the service anyway so I could speak with the preacher, Rev. John Cline. He didn’t know what was up but promised to get back to me if he did hear anything.
Next stop was a return visit to Helen’s walk-up apartment building. A random buzz of units on her floor led to a meeting with Ms. Murray — the one who’d called for the ambulance. As I was pulling away from the apartment complex, I spotted John Carlo, another good friend of Helen. We chatted.
Carlo was aware that Helen was in the hospital but he didn’t know much more than that. Then Carlo revealed a secret — that he sometimes dropped off fried chicken at Helen’s apartment. “She likes fried chicken,” he said, with a grin that suggested she loved it.
I drove around to the Misericordia Hospital to meet Helen — but not before I made a quick stop at a Mary Brown’s chicken outlet nearby.
I walked into room #703 to find Doctor Helen sitting on a chair in the corner. On a chair beside her was a preacher [whose name was Robert]. The two had their heads bowed in prayer.
The preacher wasn’t there long and to a surprised Helen I said, “Guess it’s my turn …” She asked about the package I was holding. “Food,” I said. “They feed us here, you know.” “Not like this,” I said. In seconds, Doctor Helen was devouring the delicious chicken.
“Did you bring anything to drink?” I slipped her a bottle of cold orange juice.
The snack was again compliments of Don Hume of New Brunswick.
Helen talked for only a few minutes when an old friend, a retired nurse, walked in the room and announced she was taking Helen for a walk. I left soon after, but not before I squeezed Helen’s hand and wished her all the best.
I didn’t mention pancreas, and neither did she.
A CYST – NOT CANCER
It was early afternoon on Thursday, 26 November 2015 when I returned to Doctor Helen’s hospital room — and the big smile on her face telegraphed the news: Doctors, who had just examined her, now had a more optimistic assessment. They felt that the large growth on her pancreas was, in fact, a cyst [liquid secretion in a sac], not cancer.
Unfortunately, that’s not to say the growth won’t turn cancerous. Time will tell.For the time being, the prayers of her friends and former work colleagues have been answered.
I was around to the hospital to see Doctor Huston half a dozen times — and only once did she not have company. It was like a pilgrimage. I told her she likely owed a lot of people money.
CHRISTMAS DAY 2015
Helen Huston spent Christmas Day with friends, first with the Priest Family … and, later that evening, Christmas dinner with family and friends of school teacher Charlotte Smith [standing] of Edmonton …
A beaming Helen Huston. She looks good for 88.
ON THE MOVE AGAIN
In early March 2016, Doctor Helen moved into an “independent living” senior’s complex in South Edmonton.
She’s liking it there. The old gal no longer has the Internet — but she does have the BBC.
OUR LAST VISIT …
Last time I saw Helen was the summer of 2016. I picked her up and we went for a spin. Our first stop was a fast-food outlet where we got a hot tea and a biscuit, then we went to a park in Edmonton’s river valley.