Bringing health care to the Himalayas
A Chico doctor’s journey to the top of the world—and the mission that resulted
In the summer of 2007, Chico pediatrician John Asarian made what he calls “sort of a spiritual quest” to the Himalayas. A few weeks later, he came home with a calling and a mission.
His guide on the trip was Losang Samten, a former personal assistant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and revered Tibetan scholar and artist who for some reason has adopted Chico as one of his favorite teaching sites. Asarian had met Samten a few months earlier when the latter came to Chico State University to construct a sand mandala in the student union.
Samten’s party, including Asarian, traveled to various parts of northern India, including Dharamsala, the Himalayan foothills home of the Dalai Lama, and visited several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries before ending up in Ladakh, a land of great but austere beauty high in the Himalayas.
There are only two roads into Ladakh, which is part of India’s northernmost province, and both go over passes that are more than 17,000 feet high. They are drivable only in summer months, making Ladakh one of the most isolated places on the planet.
“There’s a problem even getting food there in the winter,” Asarian says. “People still starve to death.”
There Asarian met Lama Chogyal, a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. Most Ladakhis are of Tibetan heritage and practice Buddhism, but there’s also a sizable contingent of Shia Muslims. The groups have lived together harmoniously for generations.
For several years Lama Chogyal, who is a doctor from a multigenerational family of Tibetan doctors, had been building a hospital near Leh, elevation 11,500 feet, whose population of 27,000 makes it the largest town in Ladakh. The Dalai Lama provided the seed money.
“I was struck by how beautiful it was,” Asarian now says of the building. “There were views of 20,000-foot mountains from every window.”
But it was only a shell of a hospital. It had no operating room, no recovery room and only a few pieces of equipment, enough to outfit an outpatient clinic minimally. Electricity was available just five hours a day. “The hard work had been done, but it needed to be finished,” Asarian says.
He was told of a female obstetrician and gynecologist who worked at a nearby government-run hospital but also volunteered at Chogyal’s facility. She’d do as many as 60 prenatal exams a day, twice a week, but couldn’t deliver babies there because of the lack of an operating room.
Asarian, who’s 65, has been a pediatrician for 36 years. He has devoted his life to children. He couldn’t walk away from that hospital.
“I really love the people, the energy of the town,” he explains. “I wanted to help the people and support Lama Chogyal.”
When Asarian returned to Chico, he went to work establishing the Himalayan Health Fund to raise money not only for the Ladakh Heart Foundation, as Chogyal’s hospital is called, but also to promote health care throughout the Himalayan region.
By November of 2009 he had incorporated the nonprofit group and formed a board of directors, with himself as president. Earlier this year he put out a beautifully designed brochure. A website went up (it’s currently down but will be back up in a week or so), and he began taking donations.
Lama Chogyal came to Chico last spring, spoke at several churches, raised some money and went home with a microscope—the hospital’s first—donated by Enloe Medical Center.
The immediate goal, Asarian says, is to raise sufficient funds to equip an operating room and buy two generators to provide consistent power. Bill Rantalla, an architect in the local office of Nichols, Melburg & Rossetto, is helping design the hospital’s room interiors, and also has put Asarian in touch with a San Francisco engineering firm that’s helping decide what kind of generator to use.
So far, about 10 people affiliated with the Himalayan Health Fund have visited the hospital, and Asarian intends to return to Ladakh next summer. In the meantime, Samten will be returning to Chico Dec. 20-27 to do a series of teachings (see sidenote for more).
The Ladahki people live hard lives, particularly those in the far-flung villages. Nutrition is poor, especially during the bitterly cold winter months, and health-care services are few and far between.
Many of them suffer from rheumatic heart disease, which is why Chogyal wants his hospital eventually to specialize in heart medicine. They tend to get the disease during winter months, Asarian explains, when families huddle around the yak-dung-fueled stove in the kitchen, the only warm room in the house.
It begins as strep throat, which is easily spread under such conditions. Untreated, the illness often morphs into rheumatic fever, doing permanent damage to the heart valves.
Lama Chogyal has had some success in obtaining penicillin to treat strep. During winters, he dispenses the drug out of a small kerosene-heated cabin adjacent to the unheated hospital.
For treatment of damaged heart valves, however, patients must travel more than 1,000 miles, to New Delhi, something few of them can afford.
These are the conditions Asarian wants to change. Whether it was through fate or destiny or simple happenstance, his journey to Ladakh has given his life, which was already rich in meaning, an even larger purpose.
As he puts it, “I was inspired to do something for others that would outlast my life.”