The barefoot doctor of Rolpa

Japanese surgeon makes it his life’s mission to serve in Nepal’s remotest district

Photo courtesy: RYUKICHI ISHIDA

Pratikshya Roka Magar was a sickly baby ever since she was born in a faraway village in Rukum district. As years went by, the girl’s spine started to bend.

Her mother Namrata Roka had given up hope that her daughter would ever get better when she heard about a Japanese doctor who was conducting a mobile health camp in the village. 

Partikshya was seven years old in 2013 when Japanese physician Ryukichi Ishida examined her, and diagnosed a rare case of spinal scoliosis that ultimately affects the lungs and heart. 

Now 17, Pratikshya has undergone six major operations in which two rods were inserted to her spine to straighten it. The Japanese benefactor has since been supporting her financially, and checks up on Pratikshya routinely. 

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Ryukichi Ishida NT
Photo: SUMAN NEPALI

“He is like god for us,” says a grateful Namrata.  

Pratikshya is not the only one who has received Ishida’s healing touch in these mountains where the health system is still rudimentary, and the ravages of the Maoist conflict still linger.

During voluntary work with tuberculosis control while walking through Nepal’s remotest districts in 1968 as a 21-year-old medical student, Ryukichi Ishida made a promise that he would return one day to serve the people of this country. Back in Japan, while heading the orthopaedic department at Osaka's Ueda-Shimotanabe Hospital, he constantly felt the tug of Nepal.

In 2006, he left his family and a satisfying job to fulfil his pledge to return to Nepal. A question that had nagged him all those years was why medical care around the world, including in Japan and Nepal, was not more equitable.

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Ryukichi Ishida NT
Photo: JHUMLAWANG VILLAGE FOUNDATION NEPAL

Ishida was inspired by his physician father who also ran a clinic in the most underserved part of Japan. He has travelled through Dolakha, Jumla, Jajarkot, Rukum and Rolpa, conducting free medical camps carrying just a backpack — just like when he trekked through Nepal as an idealistic student all those years ago.

He has been working at Rolpa's Jaljala Health Post since 2011, a place so remote that even Nepali health workers are reluctant to be posted there. The facility has since been turned into a hospital and research centre and is in the process of becoming a 15 bedded municipality hospital. 

The hospital has Nepali staff, but none of them stay more than a year. “The only thing constant here is Dr Ishida and his commitment to serve the people,” says Ajay Magar of the Jhumluwang Village Foundation, a non-profit that conducts health camps in collaboration with Ishida. 

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Ryukichi Ishida NT
Photo: JHUMLAWANG VILLAGE FOUNDATION NEPAL

Besides treating patients, Ishida has also supported locals like Sahanshila Buda Magar who is the first female MBBS graduate from Thawang thanks to a scholarship he provided. 

Sahanshila, 27, got her degree from Changsha Medical University in China, and is undergoing a three-month training at Patan Hospital. She plans to go back home and work at the Jaljala Hospital.  

Ishida says the staffing challenges of remote area facilities in places like Rolpa can only be met by producing their own crop of young doctors with a commitment to the place they belong. 

Despite his years of experience as an orthopaedic surgeon, Ishida believes in integrating modern medical practices with traditional healing, especially for bone-setting and birthing.

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Ryukichi Ishida NT
Photo courtesy: RYUKICHI ISHIDA

The only reward Ishida has for his work is the respect and affection of Thawang's people. Villagers refer to him simply as “हाम्रो डाक्टर” (our doctor) — indicating they have ownership over a surgeon who they consider to be rightfully theirs.

That same recognition is not reflected in the way the Nepali state regards Ishida. Now 76, and increasingly frail, Ishida has applied unsuccessfully for honorary Nepali citizenship. His visa requires Ishida to make frequent expensive trips back to Japan, and says he no longer wants to go back and forth. 

When he is away on his visa run, Rolpa’s villagers count the days for Ishida’s return so they can be treated. The surgeon does not take a salary, lives frugally and depends on the Jaljala Hospital for food and lodging. 

“I was born in Kobe, but I want to die here in Thawang,” says the soft-spoken Ishida. “This is my home now.”

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