You can’t speak or move. In a vegetable state, you have just found out that the past two surgeries you underwent, were not only ineffective, but performed by a doctor without the qualifications needed to do them. Your family is in deep debt because of the costs of the surgeries and you, at the age of twenty, are unable to do anything about it. This is a story that I was told whilst I was sitting in café, eating an omelet, next to a stranger.
I was sulking just moments before. Few situations can turn you off from talking to strangers when you’re suffering elevation sickness, your hostel’s electricity and water has decided to conk out, and the hostel staff think that the solution to your problems is a big bucket of cold water.
On that day, I was scowling, sipping a coffee in delirium and pondering if my bad luck was a karmic expression for my past week of misdeeds, when in walked Mr Sonam Wangyal. Chirpy, smiling and at that moment the bane of my existence, he plonked himself beside me and gestured cheerfully. “American?”
This small café we sat in, was situated on a small hill-station. A cosy, make-shift, McLeod Ganj is tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. This the piece of land offered to the Dalai Lama and his followers after a failed coup against the Chinese government led to their exile..
The then twenty-three-year-old Dalai Lama escaped Tibet at night, leading 80,000 of his people through the Himalayas to seek asylum in India in 1959. Here, negotiations translated from Tibetan to Hindi with the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, resulted in a nation-within-a-nation.
Now Mcleod Ganj is the Dalai Lama’s home and where the Tibetan government is in exile. Hundreds of Tibetan’s go into exile to be closer to His Holiness and the chance for an education. Mr. Wangyal at the age of 18 made the same journey. Leaving behind family and friends, he trekked to India on foot.
Mr. Wangyal now lives between Delhi and Dharamshala. It was through conversations about Tibetan sovereignty and community health with the Central Tibetan’s Administration then Prime Minister, his Eminent Samdhong Rinpoche that Patient Care Trust was born.
Healthcare in Exiled Tibetan Communities
According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, 109,015 Tibetans are living in India as refugees. The World Health Organisation says that Refugee communities around the world face not only the trauma of displacement but health risks associated with poverty. This includes diseases such as Tuberculosis which has been found in one in five Tibetan children living in exile.
When Mr. Wangyal arrived in India he began his studies. He recalled living isolated and alone in Mcleod Ganj at 18.
“I don’t think I can forget the real medical helplessness we felt as [refugees].”
Mr. Wangyal said that language barriers, isolation and poverty are some of the main barriers to health for exiled Tibetan communities. He said when patients experience a medical emergency it can be devastating on families.
“1600 people solve a serious illness every year. These are the ones that face medical emergencies. Some of them are cancer patients, have organ failures or strokes”
Mr. Wangyal said that the lack of specialists has been detrimental for exiled Tibetans.
“When we [Tibetan’s] went into exile in 1959, we left behind our educational institutes in Tibet, that would have at this point trained three generations of doctors. We are essentially three generations behind in specialists, and this is the reason why critical healthcare specialists are so devastating for the Tibetan exiled community.”
When I first met Mr. Wangyal, we sat and talked about his life in exile, cost-of-living, Buddhist philosophy and butter tea. That day he was on his way to the Central Tibetan Administration, ready to file a report to his Holiness on the PCT which has now helped over 2000 patients since its creation.
His connections now with Indian doctors at public hospitals throughout India’s capital addresses these healthcare issues in the Tibetan community. These doctors are specialised, well-trained and have been providing healthcare to the Tibetan community at a subsidised cost.
Ana Lhamo’s Story
Ms. Gaya Lhamo was a patient at PCT. Softly-spoken, she tells me in Tibetan that she journeyed to India when she was 11, as a nun.
Now 50, Ms. Lhamo has spent most her life in India, and now lives just outside Dharamshala.
Image: Gaya stands next to Mr. Wangyal in Dharamshala
When her friend became ill, she left with four other people to Delhi to meet with Mr. Wangyal after her friend had suddenly lost her ability to speak.
With no money, accommodation or people that they knew in Delhi, PCT provided the group with accommodation and food whilst they were being looked after whilst being hospitalized. During this time, Ms. Lhamo said she also became sick and her treatment was covered.
Ms. Lhamo said lots of Tibetan people do not have any money and cannot afford to go to hospitals.
“This [food and accommodation] is very important because otherwise a lot of Tibetan people will be suffering”
Ms. Lhamo said that funding NGO such as Patient Care Trust may be the answer to helping those in exile.
Mr. Wangyal now hopes to build the ability of Tibetan people to serve their own communities welfare through capacity building at three Medi-camps in 2020 that will act as a training service for Tibetan healthcare professionals.
Donations to Patient Care Trust can be made here.