Poverty killed a mother, not the quake

It was being poor that cost Sharmila her life, not winter cold after the Jajarkot earthquake

Sharmila Chadara in hospital in Surkhet. Photo courtesy of family. On the right, is the home (bottom) where Chadara lived in Nalgad Municipality. It was damaged in the earthquake but is still habitable.

Like any mother, Sharmila Chadara just wanted to get home to see her child. It was this primal urge, and other unrelated factors, that directly resulted in her death on the night of 24 November.

It was easy for journalists to assume that she had died from ‘the cold’ following the earthquake on the night of 3 November that killed 150 people outright in Jajarkot and Rukum West.

Many of Sharmila’s neighbours in Ward 4 of Nalgad Rural Municipality and the surrounding mountains were forced to sleep outdoors after their houses collapsed.

Jajrkot earthquake
Damaged homes in Nalgad, Ward 1. Many locals are living in tents, below. All photos: MARTY LOGAN
Jajarkot earthquake
Tents in Nalgad Municipality, Ward 1, Jajarkot. Occupants had their houses destroyed or damaged in the November 3 earthquake.

A local politician was quoted saying that Sharmila had become the latest post-earthquake victim because she was sleeping under a flimsy plastic sheet as night temperatures dropped. The news was picked up by the media, and there was outrage across the country.

Read also: Jajarkot: One month after the earthquake, Ramu Kharel and Maggie Doyne

Had she survived, Sharmila Chadara would probably be sleeping inside the tiny home of her husband Dinesh in Nalgad located down a dusty path, a 15-minute walk from a narrow road. It was damaged but is habitable. 

Jajarkot earthquake
The home where Sharmila Chadara lived in Nalgad Municipality. It was damaged in the earthquake but is still habitable.

Dinesh, 26, sheltered from the sun against the house as he told us about Sharmila’s final trip home. It was on Dasain Tika day in early November when Sharmila felt labour pains and they took a vehicle down to the local hospital. 

There were no doctors and the couple was advised to go to the hospital in Khalanga, where doctors in turn referred them to Surkhet. Sharmila had twins and it would be a risky delivery. 

In Surkhet, she delivered the first baby, a girl. The boy was born lifeless.

The doctors advised them to keep the girl in the hospital so she would gain weight. After five days, staff noticed that Sharmila, who till then seemed healthy, developed a cough. They diagnosed severe pneumonia and put her in the ICU.

But fluid built up in Sharmila’s lungs and she underwent dialysis, recalled Sakuntala Sapkota, the matron at the Surkhet hospital. “She had many ups and downs,” Sapkota told me.

Sharmila had five dialysis treatments as she was shuttled back and forth between ICU and the general ward. At one point a doctor told Dinesh and relatives they might not be able to save Sharmila because her body was “completely infected”.

After nearly three weeks, Sharmila had enough. She was missing her son and wanted to return to Jajarkot. But staff urged her to stay two more weeks until she was fully recovered.

In Ladakh

Three years earlier, Sharmila had travelled to Ladakh where Dinesh was working, as were her own parents. It is normal for at least one member of each household in Jajarkot and surrounding districts to migrate for work in India and beyond.

Increasingly, many are taking illegal routes destined for the US. In Athbiskot Municipality we met one woman whose brother had been gone a year, and had only made it to Turkey after paying traffickers Rs10 million. 

Sharmila stayed and worked alongside her husband at a cement factory in Ladakh, returning for the first time this past Dasain. Dinesh remembers her falling ill in India and coughing up blood. A local doctor diagnosed it as ‘weakness’ and gave her medicine. 

“But she didn’t finish it,” her husband told us. “She never finished medicine, even vitamins. I don’t know why she was like that.”

A neighbour remembers Sharmila as being honest and friendly. She did not like working in Ladakh, she added, but the pressure to earn money must have been strong.

At the hospital in Surkhet, Sharmila threatened to pull out her IV drip, remove her oxygen mask, and die in her hospital bed if she was not taken home. Dinesh relented and booked an ambulance for the family’s return trip to Nalgad.

The oxygen ran out on the way. “I was not even sure if she was breathing,” he recalled. When they reached the hospital emergency in Radi Bazar at 2AM her vital signs were nil, staff told him. Sharmila had died.

Dinesh wanted to take her home. He hired a vehicle to carry her to the foot of the hill and rounded up people in the dead of night to carry her on a stretcher, reaching home at 4AM. Sharmila was finally reunited with her son. 

Jajarkot earthquake
Dinesh Chadara with his son Ganesh at home in Nalgad Municipality recently.

Dinesh told us he has not made up his mind about returning to work in India. His in-laws have given him Rs150,000 to pay medical bills and he has borrowed more, but was still in debt.

Sharmila’s baby has been released from hospital, and continues to gain weight and get routine vaccinations. 

Left out in the cold

When we visited Jajarkot and Rukum West nearly two months after the earthquake, survivors were still living in tents and plastic shelters. 

Jajarkot earthquake
A health post destroyed in Chinabagar, Ward 1, Rukum West.

A female community health volunteer (FCHV) in Athbiskot told us she was having trouble finding a good tent for a mother just discharged from a health facility with her newborn.

Up the mountain, we reached the house of Seema Chand Malla, 28, who was eight months pregnant. Her brother-in-law was hammering together a door for a wooden shelter while waiting for the government’s Rs 50,000 temporary shelter allowance.

Sitting on a windy ridge, Seema said: “It’s very cold, but so far we're OK – let’s see what happens.”

Read also: Below zero at ground zero, Durga Rana Magar

Like many women we spoke to, Seema seemed to be receiving some, but not all, routine health services. She had gone for six pre-birth (ANC) visits, was taking calcium and iron supplements regularly and had been given medicine to prevent worms. As one of her three children, a son, played on her lap, she said her health was good.

The local FCHV used to visit to provide vitamins or information about the children’s health, but Seema had not seen her since the earthquake. The family had received one blanket, a small tent, 25kg of rice and some buckets from the government and various agencies.

When we returned from Seema Chand’s house four tractors arrived towing carts piled high with sleeping mats, rice and other goods. We saw such relief deliveries mixed with various stages of reconstruction work across the affected areas. 

Read also: Demographics of disaster in Nepal quake

Jajarkot earthquake
Seema Chand Malla, with her son, in Aathbiskot, Ward 14.

In Radi Bazar a crowd had gathered to get the forms needed to apply for government cash for shelters. 

The damage seemed mostly random, with single houses on village roads reduced to rubble, but there were also whole clusters of homes that had fallen.

On a slope overlooking the scenic, glacier-fed aquamarine Bheri River, there was a line of orange and blue tents. New mother Samjhana Bitalu, 19, crawled out from one of them to tell us that her house nearby was damaged in the earthquake and uninhabitable. 

She and her 55-days-old baby Monika were staying here with her husband, who did not want to leave them alone to return to his job in Khalanga.

Samjhana said she gave birth at a nearby health post, but no staff visited her afterwards. The only help the family had received was a tent and 25kg of rice from the Ward office. 

“When it rains it’s hard to keep the baby dry because the water comes inside the tent, and she has diarrhoea,” the mother said.

Following local custom, she did not think the baby should receive any treatment before she was two months old. But a health worker urged Samjhana to get medical care for the baby.

“It’s more difficult because I have to manage everything alone,” Samjhana said stoically. “Otherwise, everyone would have been together at home.”

Nearby, Amrita Gharti, 22, was still living in her in-laws’ house with her husband. She was almost two months pregnant. 

Amrita previously had a miscarriage, despite being told by ANCs that she was healthy. This time, arriving at her local birthing facility for her first checkup, she was told to return when she was exactly two months pregnant. “They didn’t do my checkup. They were too busy,” she said.

Jajarkot earthquake
Amrita Gharti is pregnant and living in her in-laws' house in Nalgad, Ward 1.

Aruna Chaudhary of the Radha Paudel Foundation spent two weeks in Nalgad providing menstrual kits to 450 women and adolescent girls. 

Demand for her support was great and the cold was especially hard on children, she told us. 

“Many children have pneumonia and cholera and have to take medicine,” she added. “There was lots of diarrhoea and many had injuries from the earthquake itself.” 

Pneumonia and other cold-related illnesses were also growing in Chinabagar where lack of water and sanitation was worsening the situation, especially for women and adolescent girls.

Dhani Kumar Giri from the group WOREC was assisting arrivals at a tent while the group also provided care door-to-door. In a nearby tent an organization was providing psychological counselling to those troubled by the disaster.

Some good news

Around noon on 6 December, Man Kumari Singh arrived with labour pains at the health post in Athbiskot-4 of Jajarkot. She was pregnant with twins, but had been declared healthy during previous visits to the facility.

But by 4PM her labour had not progressed and Man Kumari was starting to shake in distress. Staff decided to request a helicopter rescue, but by the time permission was granted from Kathmandu it was too late in the day. 

Health post staff decided to send her to the municipal hospital in Dali, but doctors there referred her to the mission hospital in Chaurjahari instead. They sent an ambulance carrying two nurses to accompany her.

At 1AM that night Man Kumari’s twins were delivered normally. By noon she had been transferred to the ICU at the provincial hospital in Surkhet. Soon after she was moved to the general ward and by 19 December she had recovered and been discharged. The twins were also reported to be in good health.

Author thanks One Heart Worldwide for arranging logistics for reporting on this story. 

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