Melanie’s Experience: Stories of Survival
Written by Melanie Thomas (Business Mentor & Volunteer)
Having had the honour of working with Anita Roddick in the early days of The Body Shop, I gained first hand experience of what it meant to truly making a difference on a humanitarian level, Anita really did ‘walk the talk’ and inspired so many of us over the years to actively get involved in supporting our local communities as well as reaching out and helping on an international level. At the beginning of 2016, after 30 years of working at a senior level within the corporate world, I knew for sure that I wanted the next 15 years of my working life to be about truly making a difference and giving back to those most in need both in the UK and internationally.
First step was the end of January 2016 where I attended a leadership conference for women in London, here I heard the incredibly inspirational Linda Cruise share her story of frontline humanitarian work where she helps disaster stricken communities around the world, Richard Branson is quoted as saying “Linda makes the impossible possible, what a great adventure”.
Linda’s words really struck a cord with me and at the end of her speech when she asked who in the audience would join her in March for a frontline humanitarian trip helping the earthquake survivors of Nepal; I knew I would be joining her.
Just over 4 weeks later I landed in Kathmandu the capital city of Nepal for the first time and as I left the airport and travelled through the busy bustling streets of the city I was not only hit by the vibrancy of the city and its people but also the sheer devastation of the 2015 earthquakes. Over the next week I worked closely with Linda and her Nepali team in both the refugee camp in central Kathmandu but also in 2 villages severely damaged when the earthquakes hit. Our approach was all about a ‘hand up’ not a ‘hand out’ so working with those most in need we would sit down with them and explore sustainable ways for them to earn a living and rebuild their lives, once an earning opportunity had been fully researched we would then fund the money needed to make it a reality, it could be as simple as paying $100 for a simple food cart to be made out of recycled materials and providing the cooking utensils and food ingredients needed for a widow with 4 children to sell hot drinks and traditional food within her community and be on her way to independent living, in my mind far better than just handing out cash.
I believe on your first frontline humanitarian trip there will be an experience that will forever be in your heart. For me, it was meeting baby Sesang and her parents in one of the remote villages. Whilst walking around the village we were talking to locals to see who needed the most help, remote villages in Nepal can be very spread out over hillsides and often those most in need like a widow with young children or the elderly are often hard to find. Through an interpreter we were talking to a gentleman who spoke on behalf of some of the villagers and he assured us that everyone was well and although most of them were homeless and living in temporary shelters there was no urgent need. That in itself is such a great example of the beauty of the Nepali people, they often have so little but always try to make the best of their situation and are always so generous and kind to others.
As were talking to this gentleman a young women walked towards me with a baby girl in her arms and put her onto my lap, as she did this she started to peel back the layers of the shawl the baby was wrapped in, in those few seconds I prepared my mind for the worst as I had a feeling this mother was reaching out to me out of sheer desperation. I was right. Baby Sesang had a severe infection on her right leg from her hip down to her knee, so severe was the infection it was in fact an open wound with rotting flesh, the baby was just 8 months old. Her parents explained to me that the infection had started when the baby was just 3 months old and as they had lost everything in the earthquake (their home, livestock and therefore their earning opportunity) they had not had the money to get urgent medical help for her, the infection was so bad many of the villagers had told the young couple to take the baby to the forest and leave it there to die. As a mother myself, I knew only too well how as a parent you will do anything for your child and to see them suffering, as this little baby was, must have been heartbreaking for her parents. We immediately found Linda (who is a trained nurse) in the village and asked her to confirm my worst fears, her words will stay with me forever, “this baby is close to death and if we do not get her to hospital today she will die”.
As a team we had driven to the village in a 4×4 as the roads are virtually nonexistent and it taken over 4 hours from Kathmandu, we were already a full load but somehow managed to squeeze mum, dad and baby Seseng in and got them to a private hospital. Treatment started immediately with the doctors saying the next 24 hours were critical, our fears were if she survived she may still have to have her leg amputated, so bad was the infection. The great news is with very strong medication and hospital care baby Sesang started to recover, in the village she had been listless but within 48 hours she started to smile and move her arms, as you can imagine her mum and dad were elated and constantly thanked us for saving their family.
I had to return to the UK whilst baby Sesang was in hospital and it took over 7 weeks before she was well enough to return home. Once I was back in the UK I set up a crowdfunding page to raise the funds needed for her medical treatment and within a few weeks with the generous support of friends, family and previous work colleagues we had raised the money needed not only for her private hospital care but also ongoing medication for the next few months, just brilliant!
So fast forward 7 months and having fallen totally in love with Nepal and the voluntary work I was doing there I landed back in Kathmandu for a 1 month stay this time, supporting a wonderful organisation I had come across on Instagram called The Help Nepal Appeal, Jody the founder clearly had the same passion as me for the country and communities of Nepal and I could not wait to travel and support her on truly making a difference and of course find a way to see baby Sesang and her precious family again.
My month of volunteering and travelling with The Help Nepal Appeal was quite simply one of the best and happiest months of my life, together we connected and worked with so many people and organisations all dedicated to helping the communities of Nepal at a grassroots level. Travelling extensively we managed to help remote families literally starving to death, we helped improve and educate rural schools about special needs education and integration with main stream schools and together we mentored local Nepalis who were reaching out and helping their community in recovery for the future.
Together Jody and I experienced so many ‘magical moments’ and for me the one that stood out the most was the day baby Sesang and her parents travelled to Kathmandu from their remote village where we met them at the hospital for a check up, I was concerned as whilst I had been back in the UK it had been monsoon season in Nepal and knowing the family were living in a tin shelter the baby would have been exposed to all sorts of infections. As the doctor checked baby Sesang he turned to me and said with the biggest smile on his face “the healing and recovery is far better than I had expected, for the foreseeable future no further treatment is needed”.
WOW seriously does not get much better than that and the photo you see here is of me with baby Sesang, her parents and my dear friend Santosh who is always by my side as interpreter, it was taken after we had seen the doctor and the smiles on our faces I hope explain our utter happiness and joy.
Baby Sesang is now 17 months old as I write this and although doing well is not as mobile as I would like for a toddler of her age, so this year my intention is to return to Nepal and continue to monitor her recovery and support her family where I can, whilst in Nepal I will continue to help and support the fantastic work of The Help Nepal Appeal and cannot wait to go back and revisit all their projects and continue to help in whatever way I can, if you are reading this and want to make a difference too, why don’t you join me? I promise you it will be the experience of a lifetime!
(Business Mentor & Volunteer)
It has been an absolutely inspirational experience helping others with Melanie, and to now be able to share her story. I cannot wait to release this story as a video soon [Founder Jody Dontje]