A life devoted to healing

When people who have gone on to devote their lives to public service are asked who has been their greatest inspiration while growing up, many cite parents, teachers or spiritual gurus.

For Nepal’s noted paediatric orthopaedic surgeon Ashok Banskota, the inspiration was an author few today have heard of, and a book even fewer have read: Adventures in Two Worlds the 1952 biography of Scottish doctor and novelist A J Cronin and his dual career in a Welsh coalmine.

“The story of a medical doctor rushing about in a motorcycle to treat miners somehow left a powerful imprint in my mind,” says Banskota, recalling days spent in the library of St Xavier’s School in Godavari in the 1960s where Jesuit teachers also inculcated values of service, integrity and perseverance.

Those ideals have been the guiding principles of the Nepali surgeon who was awarded the SICOT TKS Gold Medal for Outstanding Work by an Orthopaedic Surgeon in a Developing Country at a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur. The prize is given by the Brussels based SICOT (Société Internationale de Chirurgie Orthopédique et de Traumatologie) and named after the veteran Indian surgeon T K Shanmugasunderam.

This is just the latest of many awards Banskota has been conferred over a career lasting nearly 50 years. After getting his MBBS from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) in Delhi, Banskota went to the United States where he did his specialisation in various hospitals including Johns Hopkins.

He came back to Nepal in 1977, where he had to pull powerful strings to get appointed as a ‘medical officer’ at Bir Hospital because officials would not recognise his American degree. After being discouraged and given the run-around, Banskota recalls tearing up his appointment letter in disgust.

“Come hell or high water, I made up my mind never to work for an outfit that was so unmotivated in a place where the need was so great,” he says.

HRDC children.

Banskota then volunteered at Shanta Bhawan as a paediatric surgeon under Archie Fletcher, and felt that he had finally found his calling in life – helping children from underprivileged families who could not afford treatment. After Shanta Bhawan merged with Patan Hospital in 1982, Banskota turned down an offer to join Fletcher in Seattle, and continued volunteering at Anandaban leprosy hospital doing hand reconstruction, and at the Scheer Memorial Hospital in Banepa.

It took another seven years of fund-raising and painstaking preparation for Banskota to finally set up his dream project: the Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children (HRDC) in Banepa in 1992.

“As a young surgeon looking for challenges, I couldn’t have asked for more,” Banskota recalls. “The plight of the children was heart-breaking, and the personal sense of fulfilment of having the privilege to make them better was the greatest reward I could have. Yet, there was so much more to do and so little to do it with.”

The hilltop facility in Banepa was also a great escape from the grime and congestion of Kathmandu for Banskota, who was working on a parallel project to set up the private B&B Hospital with fellow-physician Jagdish Lal Baidya.

Juggling two jobs was not easy, when not supervising construction and overseeing administrative work, he was operating nearly non-stop in the surgery from early morning till late at night. “I did not have much of a family life,” he admits.

HDRC offers free medical care for children with congenital and trauma-related disabilities, infections in its six operating theatres, and offers physiotherapy and rehabilitation. Since the children are away from home for so long, the hospital also runs a school so they do not miss out on studies.

This is a unique model, where a private city hospital supports a rural charity facility. Besides Banepa, HRDC also runs a Community Based Rehabilitaiton program with four satellite centres and mobile clinics all over Nepal. In the past nearly 40 years, HRDC has changed for the better the lives of 105,000 children, nearly half of them female.

More than in Nepal, it appears that Banskota’s contribution is recognised internationally. Besides the recent SICOT TKS Award from the World Orthopaedic Concern, Banskota has received the World of Children Health Award in 2011, the Stars Impact Award in 2014 and a citation in 2016 from the World of Children Hero Award.

HRDC even employs former patients like Juddha Nepali on whom Banskota performed hip surgery when he was 13 years old in 1992. Today Nepali is a technician in the prosthetic department. He says, “There is a place in Nepal where children with physical disability can receive world-class treatment irrespective of their caste, ethnicity or economic status. I am a living example of that.”

Sumitra was born in remote western Nepal with scoliosis, a deformity on her back and was often stigmatised by peers. A visiting HRDC mobile clinic came to her village, and took her to Banepa for spine surgery. Sumitra’s life has been transformed: she finished college, passed her civil service exam and now has a government job.

HRDC’s Community Based Rehabilitation has conducted more than 30 camps in 22 districts all over Nepal, operating and offering post-operative physiotherapy to nearly 30,000 patients just in 2021.

Ashok Banskota is not one of those flashy, flamboyant surgeons who craves celebrityhood. Even at age 74, he is more at home in his clinic or operating theatre, but is now devoting more time mentoring a new crop of surgeons and health workers, and trying to inculcate in them the same sense of commitment to public service that motivated him all his life.

And when he needed spine surgery himself recently, he got the doctors he trained to operate on him in his own hospital. He says, “Whatever is good enough for my patients is good enough for me.”

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