The Backpack Doctors – Healing and Photography in Nepal

Nepal is a place of astounding beauty like nowhere else on earth. The summer days are breathtakingly endless blue, punctuated by torrential downpours and proudly arching rainbows. Evenings boast the clearest, starriest skies. While it’s incredibly magical to me, this is just life as usual for the Nepalese people. But amid all this splendor, things are not so easy for them. They do not have access to the medical treatment they desperately need. So, three times a year, we come here to help them. And every time I come back, I feel lucky to be here, grateful to be among these amazing people.

A snapshot of Nepalese women and children

Life in Nepal – simple, grateful.
Photographed by Max Wei.

I’m a professional photographer and I enjoy seeing the world through my lens. But, as a physician, sometimes what I see — tremendous physical suffering and emotional trauma — can trigger a conflicted feeling in my heart. I’ve often been asked, why I don’t just exaggerate the pity aspect of what I see through my photography in order to get people to sympathize and donate to our cause. But I don’t think charity should be promoted that way. Charity should come naturally, from the heart. And, out of respect for the people, I don’t choose to show their suffering, because that is only a part of their lives. As a matter of fact, most of the time, I see people’s great smiles, and I see them being thankful and content.

Nature is as treacherous as it is perfect

It’s been 7 years since we formed our volunteer group, Nepal Mountain Mobile Medical Team (MMMT). Three times a year, we venture deep into these majestic, difficult mountains to help these people who desperately need medical attention. They don’t have the access or the means to get it so this is the only way they can be treated.

MMMT volunteers to the next stop

MMMT volunteers hiking to the next stop, 5-hours away.
Photographed by Max Wei.

In Nepal, in the summer, when it rains it a constant downpour. Wildlife is pervasive here. Challenging. All encompassing. Even in all its beauty, nature is the most powerful force. We sleep in simple shelters with leaky roofs. But the one good thing about the rain is that it blocks out the crazy loud grasshoppers and other bugs that make all kinds of unsettling noise during the night. After caring for more than 100 people each day, all we crave is some good sleep. But the imagination soars at the mere thought of all these bugs while we’re ensconced in the tenting mesh in the pitch black of night. Termites are as fat as your finger, the spiders are massive, fleas are jumping, cockroaches skitter across the floor, moths as big as your palm flap by; it’s endless.

Nepal MMMT sleeping shelter

Our shelter, where we spend our “quiet” nights.
photographed by Max Wei.

Nature may be overwhelming but is a wonderfully great protectant too: the people heal much more easily here. Because they aren’t exposed to the same pollution as in more populated countries, they don’t have to fight off as many toxins.

Snapshots of MMMT members serving in Nepal.

Snapshots of MMMT members serving in Nepal.
Photographed by Max Wei.

Some of the ways we help them heal

The stories of the people we meet – and their needs – are, of course, all very different. Some are very eye opening. For example, one day a woman arrived with her two sons, ages seven and four. What we came to realize is that the the seven-year-old boy was the one who brought his mother and little brother here. The woman had been born mute, and, later in life, she lost her eyesight, too. I watched as she tilted her head, listening to the boy while he told me what was needed, her face appearing to be smiling, openly, and hopefully. The boy’s face was unusually mature for his age. But it was not unexpected considering all he’d been through. Not long before this meeting, his father had fallen from a tree and impaled his leg on a branch. Without access to medical treatment, he died of infection. After this, practically overnight, this boy became, out of necessity, head of the household and his serious, determined, quietly respectful face told this whole story.

Dr. Max treating patients

Max treating his patients.

Another person, an older man, had been carried to us by a young man from his village – an hour long trip on foot. Young men often carry the elderly or the sick to our shelters in this manner. The old man had been suffering from paralysis in his arm for quite some time. After just 5 days of acupuncture – administered using nine 1.5 inch needles – as well as lots of guidance and encouragement, this old man was able to move his limb again. He waved goodbye to us, grateful to regain the use of his arm.

Nepal man treated with occupuncture

A patient being treated with acupuncture for his long-lasted knee problem.
Photographed by Max Wei.

The Healing and the Healed

I know it sounds trite or clichéd but I don’t know how else to put it. I truly believe fate has brought us together as patients and doctors. If you asked me, “Out of all places, why Nepal?” I honestly don’t have an answer. And rather than say we ‘choose’ to come here, I think it’s that we’ve been “chosen.”

What impresses me most is how thankful people are here. They tell us how lucky they are, how much it means to them that we come to help. But what I feel is that we’re not giving so much as just doing what we’re supposed to do. It’s just human nature to help those who are in need, isn’t it?

Nepal old woman laughing

Village woman laughing as she chats with the volunteers.
Photographed by Max Wei.

One morning, I was drinking coffee after breakfast before starting a new day. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two little girls watching me. Seeing foreigners in their land can be an once-in-a-lifetime event but this wasn’t so much about that. These little girls were just so grateful. I’d put some ointment on one of their wounds the previous day. To show their appreciation, they brought me a pear. I’ll be honest: it was probably the sourest little pear I ever ate. But believe me, I ate every bite. I was just so touched by their gesture, by this gift especially for me.

Nepal village girls

Local girls, greeting us with big smiles.
Photographed by Max Wei.

 

I often ponder what more I can do for the Nepalese people using my camera. Sure, I could easily sell the photos I take here back to the modern world and earn money from them. But, instead, I’ve decided to document what I see and experience, through my photography and with my words, with the hope that people will want to know more about these incredible people and help them, too.

As I see it, we may be the doctors bringing medicine, but I think we really heal each other. We get so much more than we give.

 

Max Wei, MMMT volunteer.About the guest blogger
Max Wei is a doctor practicing Chinese medicine. As a pro photographer, he also documents the Nepal trips with his volunteer medical team. He currently lives in Taiwan. To learn more about MMMT and see more amazing photos from Max, visit www.facebook.com/mmmt.nepal.

*This post is a direct translation from Max’s Chinese script. 

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