RESPONDING TO A CALL FROM NEPAL
When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal in April 2015, Carley Barker was among the brave medical workers who responded to a global call for help. The conditions in Nepal were risky for anyone, but living with Type 1 diabetes meant Carley needed to be prepared for the worst.
“Helping out in an international emergency or disaster scenario has always been a dream of mine,” says Carley, a paramedic who’s had Type 1 diabetes for over 20 years.
She lives on Gabriola Island, just off the coast of Vancouver Island, where the threat of an earthquake is ever-present. So for her, it was natural to offer help in another earthquake zone. The news coming from Nepal wasn’t good. Villages were flattened, buildings were destroyed and the number of people reported dead or injured was climbing.
Carley was quick to volunteer three weeks of her time to the Canadian Medical Assistance Team (CMAT), a grassroots humanitarian relief organization. She was ready to fulfill a lifelong dream of joining healthcare relief efforts in an international emergency. Helping others in distress was one of the driving forces behind her career in healthcare – the only career path she ever considered.
“It’s my job to deal with wounds and injuries, but also to be the calm in the midst of chaos.”
“I love being a paramedic,” Carley says. “It allows me to make a difference to people in crisis situations. It’s my job to deal with wounds and injuries, but also to be the calm in the midst of chaos.”
Carley had traveled before with diabetes, spending time in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico, and never had a problem. She always carries a note from her doctor, a vacation loaner pump and her Insulin Pump Travel Card from Animas to avoid any hassles at airport security.
“I always carry backup supplies. And in a worst case scenario, there’s an embassy there to help,” she says.
But traveling to a disaster-stricken region was a new and unpredictable experience for her, and she only had one month to prepare for her departure.
Broadcast news kept her updated on the conditions in Nepal, and she reached out to other paramedics about their experiences in developing countries. Online, she researched options for travel and accommodation, mandatory vaccinations, travel advisories and what to pack. She spoke with different medical insurance companies to ensure she had the best coverage. Would there be clean water and food available? Could she be exposed to illness? How would her body react to the high altitude? From Advil to antibiotics, her doctor advised her on medications to pack. An emergency rationing kit with high-carbohydrate energy bars would be suitable for treating lows or in case access to food was an issue, and she brought water purification tablets.
“I also contacted my cell phone provider and got an oversees plan for Nepal so I would have communication while I was there.” When it came to diabetes, Carley had backup plans in place. She packed about six weeks of supplies for the three-week trip. If anything happened to her insulin pump, plan B was to use the Animas vacation loaner pump.
Plan C was injections. Her Endocrinologist helped her calculate doses of long and short acting insulin should she need to go off the pump and rely on injections. She packed 100 syringes and 100 pen needles. If any of her supplies were ruined, stolen or ran out, she’d fly to Hong Kong to replenish her stock or travel back home.
On June 6, she boarded the 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, where she had an 11-hour layover before her 4.5-hour flight to Nepal.
“I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal at about 10:30 at night. The airport was crowded, but I’m tall and blond, so I stuck out like a sore thumb.”
She was greeted by 5 members of the CMAT team who took her to Tent City, where aid workers and healthcare professionals from around the world were set up in tents with cots.
“The heat was crazy there – it was over 40 degrees some days. I checked my blood sugars about 10 times a day to make sure my insulin was still working!”
Knowing that refrigeration wouldn’t be available, Carley kept her insulin and all her supplies with her at all times in a backpack and protected it from the heat as much as possible.
“I inspected my vials of insulin regularly and kept all of my supplies on me at all times. There was no way I was going to risk leaving my stuff anywhere or with anyone. Those supplies are my life and my responsibility.”
Although food was limited the first few days after the earthquake, stocks of food and bottled water had been replenished by the time Carley arrived. Hospitals had plenty of water, and food kiosks were set up throughout the villages.
She woke in Tent City on her first morning, and set out on foot to find the local hospital and learn where she was most needed. Despite the devastation around her, nothing left a stronger impression on Carley than the people.
“The people of Nepal are amazing and resilient. They’ve got smiles on their faces. They’re all so giving, so caring, and helping each other. And nobody’s expecting anything in return,” she says.
She noticed very few vehicles being used as locals worked tirelessly to rebuild their communities and women hauled heavy loads in large wicker baskets. People were on foot and eager to help. With foreign aid workers everywhere, it was easy to get directions to the local hospital.
“When I walked in the door to the hospital, it was just heartbreaking. The healthcare and sanitation in Nepal is not up to the standards we’re used to in North America. We treated everything from scratches to diarrhea, broken bones and dislocated shoulders. It was a mess.”
After working in the hospital for a few days, Carley discovered a hostel where an aid organization could use her assistance. They were arranging day trips to remote mountain villages where roads had been washed away by landslides and the people were in need of supplies and medical care.
“We went into different villages every day, giving out medication, bandaging wounds and re-building schools.”
With aftershocks occurring on a daily basis, local children were in constant fear of another earthquake, so rescue workers focused on bringing any comfort they could.
“We’d bring a boom box and have little dances with the school kids. We did whatever we could to bring comfort and keep life as ‘normal’ for the kids as we could under the circumstances.”
As she trekked from village to village in the heat, Carley kept her blood glucose levels in range by testing frequently and trusting in her pump.
“Diabetes was never an issue. In all my travels, I’ve never had a problem with the Animas® pump. It’s a wonderful thing. I trust my life with it.”
Back home on Canada’s west coast, Carley aims to join more humanitarian relief efforts after her “life-changing” experience in Nepal.
She offers this advice to other Type 1’s considering a similar journey: “Don’t hesitate. Go. Do what you can. Just be prepared.”