A Mormon in Nepal


Seated beneath a twenty-five foot statue of Buddha in a remote Nepalese monastery, the young Latter-day Saint took a deep breath as he surveyed his patients: several dozen robe-clad Buddhist monks standing restlessly in a queue, some softly chanting and rhythmically spinning wooden prayer wheels.

Their physician, 23-year-old Steven Komadina of Albuquerque, New Mexico, carefully examined each monk under the watchful gaze of Sulkim Tulku, the chief lama. Sulkim was considered by his faithful Buddhist followers to be a reincarnated god, and although he understood little of what he saw being done here, he knew all too well the suffering and poor health among the monks who had fled over the mighty Himalayas from Tibet and Communist troops.

It was Steven Komadina, a Latter-day Saint medical student at the University of New Mexico, who brought modern medical care to them. He had left the campus and classrooms to travel to the kingdom of Nepal in an adventure of a lifetime.

“It all began as a medical school project,” he recalls. “We were each allowed six months to pursue our own special interests before graduation, and I knew it was a perfect opportunity to be a missionary doctor.”

After considering several countries, he volunteered to spend his leave at a small nondenominational mission hospital near Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. His goal: to compare health care among the remote villages in the heart of Asia with isolated areas of northern New Mexico.

Steve admits, however, he didn’t fully realize just how far away Nepal really was, in both time and distance. Time, in fact, seems to stand still in the distant land; life there has remained essentially unchanged for perhaps a thousand years.

“I felt as though I had stepped back hundreds of years when I flew to India,” Steve recalls.

Like a proud lady, Nepal has maintained the dignity of her years. The rich traditions of the past have left indelible traces on today’s Nepalese culture.

Nestled in the lap of soaring Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, it is Nepal where tradition traces the cradle of Eastern civilization; it was here that Siddhartha Gautama lived and died, the “enlightened one” who once was spiritual master of one-third of mankind—Buddha; it was also here among this people, it is said, that Kublai Khan found the builders of his fabulous courts.

And it is here, a land untouched by the gospel of Jesus Christ, that intensely religious Hindus continue today to practice primitive sacrificial rites.

Steve found Nepal a land of dramatic contrasts. It offered a real challenge. He was away from the controlled atmosphere of the laboratory and classroom for the first time. He was expected to be a doctor—and a Latter-day Saint—among the different peoples of central Asia.

Prior to 1950, Nepal had been virtually closed to the Western world. Only a handful of foreigners had been allowed to enter before that time. Steve saw the results: only limited electricity available anywhere, little running water, farmers using a crude mattock, called the “kodali,” rather than a plow, and roads—where they existed—that were frequently impassable.

Steven Komadina’s assignment brought him to Shanta Bhawan, an area near Katmandu, where the noted pioneer of modern medicine in Nepal, Dr. Bethal Fleming, had established a hospital early in the 1950s. When he first wrote to Dr. Fleming asking her consent to come to the hospital, she replied with a warning that it wouldn’t be easy to be a doctor in Nepal.

“She made it perfectly clear that I would only be happy there if I had a deep, abiding faith in God and Jesus Christ,” explains Steve. “The Nepalese had missed much in the way of health care and were in desperate need of medical attention.”

Dr. Fleming agreed that her enthusiastic intern had a good record. He had been an honor student throughout both high school and college, an Eagle Scout and a Scout leader, a foreign exchange student to Denmark, president of the student medical association at the University of New Mexico, and leader of the campus Student Association of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Once settled at the hospital, Steve found himself traveling daily by four-wheel-drive vehicle into the surrounding mountains and valleys to conduct impromptu health clinics. He began to learn the names of the many ornately dressed tribes—names like the Sherpas, the famous mountain guides, and Ghotlas, Tamangs, Limbus, and Newars. And wherever the tribesmen gathered, they needed medicine and treatment.

However, the techniques he had studied in the United States seemed strange and unfamiliar in this new environment. He saw cholera, diphtheria, parasites, leprosy, and malnutrition all around him. He was scheduled to conduct clinics six days a week in outlying areas to examine patients, treat injuries and infections, and, whenever possible, teach the Nepalese preventive health care.

“It was discouraging,” Steve admits. “People living in villages only one mile apart often couldn’t speak the same dialect or even understand a common language.”

With the use of a native guide, the young intern was able to diagnose ailments and prescribe medicines, if they were available. He knew there were no cures for diseases caused by malaria-carrying mosquitoes or tiny parasites that infested contaminated food and water.

Steve paused often to contemplate the beauty of the magnificent mountains before him. He recalled that many ancient and modern prophets had found strength and inspiration in such high and lofty places.

The foothills around the bowl-like Katmandu Valley are cut into an endless series of terraces for cultivation. The farmers grow rice in the summer and wheat and mustard in the winter. The 20,000-foot silver peaks of the Himalayas appear to be hung across the northern horizon only twenty miles from Katmandu.

To the south, the low, hot jungle of the Terai paints a contrast to the mountains. There, the tribesmen live from day to day in constant fear of ravaging animals in the bush.

In the Katmandu Valley, Steve was astonished at the remarkably fertile soil. A local farmer displayed with pride a carrot that was more than four feet long and nearly a foot and a half through. Cauliflower as large as a pumpkin is common.

Early one November morning, Dr. Fleming urged Steve to take a guide and go to the daily clinic in a distant village. It would be a slow day, she said, and important hospital business would prevent her from going along.

With the help of his interpreter, Steve examined and treated more than 270 sick villagers that day in what had been scheduled to be a three-hour clinic. Only darkness would force others to turn away without being seen.

“I was exhausted when we finally stopped,” he recalls. “But we had five emergency patients to transport back to the hospital for operations and follow-up care.”

The hospital staff, already overworked, stopped him.

“There’s no room,” he was told. “They’ll have to be treated and returned to their villages.”

“But how?” Steve asked. “They are all seriously sick—one has heart disease, another cancer. They can’t be sent away; they’ll die.”

Many would soon die, he discovered, but life, even as cruel as it seemed to him at that moment, and even death, are a part of the everyday existence of the ten million people in Nepal.

“If I saw a day pass that I didn’t lose a patient, it was a blessing,” Steve said later. He was yet to watch many children being born, knowing that all too often they would not survive their infancy because of disease and infection.

Several weeks later, while resting on the porch of a small clinic building on the side of a tiered foothill, Steve saw a woman running down the path in his direction. She was hysterical, he said.

“She was yelling to us in a tongue my guide couldn’t understand. All we knew was that someone was coming—someone who needed our help.”

In a few moments a man appeared at the top of the sloping path leading to the hut. As he drew nearer, the outline of a large straw basket strapped to his back became more distinct.

When the barefoot tribesman reached the waiting group, he lowered the basket. Inside was a man who had been tending his goats when a vicious bear attacked. He had been found and hurriedly carried for more than two hours from the nearby mountains. His mutilated body, still clinging to life, soaked the basket with blood. He died just ten minutes later.

Steve turned to prayer and the scriptures for encouragement in the face of this radically primitive life and his role as physician. During the long evenings he spent alone in his hut, he searched prayerfully for answers to the issues that persisted in his mind.

“How could the Lord forget this people?” he asked himself. “There must be a reason for their isolation—and their suffering.”

Steve wondered if perhaps there were other Mormons within traveling distance who could share his feelings about the destiny of the Nepalese people and how they fit into the gospel plan.

When he asked doctors at the hospital if there were any Mormons among the small American diplomatic corps in the capital of Katmandu, the reply was no. There had been some Mormons there once, but they left long ago.

Steve became resigned to finding spiritual strength from within himself.

Then, early one foggy morning, as he emerged from his hut to begin the journey with his guide to the daily clinic, a well-dressed man was standing near his jeep.

“I didn’t know him, but I knew that Dr. Fleming had frequent visitors from many countries at the hospital,” he recalls.

The visitor turned to Steve and asked, “Are you Dr. Komadina?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“I understand that you’re a Mormon.”

With a brief introduction, Steve soon learned that his visitor was Larry Hartman, a United States government teacher assigned to the U.S. AID/Nepal program, teaching business administration at a Katmandu university—and he was a Latter-day Saint!

He explained that his wife had been in labor for several days, expecting to give birth to their second child at any time, but there appeared to be some complications and she had asked for a blessing. In their hurry to pack for the trip to Nepal, the Hartmans had overlooked their now most needed possession, consecrated oil.

Hearing about the young Mormon doctor at the Shanta Bhawan hospital from their own physician at Katmandu, Larry Hartman had gone to him for help. Soon afterward, Steve was introduced to the tiny Katmandu Latter-day Saint congregation; the Hartman family and June Futatsugi, a secretary to the director of the U.S. AID/Nepal program in the capital.

Steve’s prayers for Latter-day Saint companionship had been answered.

Although religious sects are not allowed to proselyte in Nepal nor are the Nepalese permitted to change their present religion under threat of imprisonment, Dr. Komadina found many people willing to talk openly about their religious beliefs. He learned quickly that the state religion, Hinduism, is very complex.

“Most people there couldn’t explain their religion to me,” he says. “They often didn’t understand it themselves, but it was the only way of life they knew.”

He was depressed also to learn of the yearly rites of sacrifice in a nearby village when a young boy would be sacrificed and put to death, even though the ceremony had been officially banned by the king.

“The Nepalese are generally a wonderful, happy group of people,” Steve says. “They seem to have at least part of the gospel ideals already and don’t realize it. They’ll accept the full plan one day. I’m sure of it.”

Near the close of his six months in this strange land, Steve Komadina accompanied Dr. Robert Fleming, noted ornithologist and husband of Steve’s supervisor, on an extended journey into the jungles of southern Nepal. They went primarily to search for rare bird specimens, but also to conduct health clinics wherever they found sick and injured natives.

For a week they lived among a group of native Nepalese known as the Chapan villagers. This primitive people had seen only two white men before in that isolated region. Relying mainly on bows strung with strips of bamboo, the Chapans lived largely on a diet of bats and other small animals and birds. A frequent health problem, Steve found, was painful monkey bites.

The Chapans found the “silent Samaritan” helpful, distributing medicine and wrapping open wounds. He noted that many of the natives slept at night on platforms built on stilts for protection from wild animals.

The two visitors conducted informal worship services in the village one Sunday evening. With a backdrop of jungle huts and the Chapan drums beating a mournful rhythm, Steve taught Dr. Fleming the words to his favorite hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

It was a never-to-be-forgotten occasion, Steve says.

A few days before his departure, Steve experienced what he calls “the climax to my adventure in that unknown land.” As he was sleeping in his hospital bungalow late one night, he was rudely awakened by a stabbing pain in the right side of his abdomen. He soon diagnosed the problem as a possible attack of appendicitis.

“I knew that meant an operation—and perhaps several weeks delay in leaving Nepal. My trip schedule required that I leave on time or I would miss the final medical school exams in a few short days.”

But the medical exams began to lose their significance as he took a second look to make sure that he had made no mistake in his diagnosis. He had seen the symptoms of appendicitis numerous times among the Nepalese—and most had never recovered from it.

At the hospital an operation could be performed, but it would require anesthesia, a risk wherever it is administered but doubly dangerous in the understaffed and poorly equipped hospital.

Steve dropped to his knees in prayer. If ever he needed help from his Heavenly Father, this was the time.

“I poured my soul out,” he recalls. “The pain was tremendous and nearly doubled me over, but I knew the Lord would help me if I had the faith. This was my only chance of finishing medical school—and perhaps of recovering at all.”

After several hours of excruciating pain and fervent prayer, he noted that the fever of infection in the abdomen was beginning to disappear. Soon the pain was completely gone.

“I felt as if God had tapped my soul and let something drain out,” he says. “I told myself I was dreaming, that it could have been something else besides an attack of appendicitis, but I was trained to recognize it, and it had happened too many times with my patients for me to be wrong in my diagnosis.”

The pain has not returned.

Steve began the journey home on a bus scheduled for arrival at the Indian border in a few days. As he attempted to pass into the bordering country, government officials questioned his official documents. He was allowed to pass, but only on the condition he report to U.S. officials immediately upon arrival in New Delhi.

Then tragedy struck. He boarded a train, and having gone without sleep for more than forty-eight hours, he dozed on the crowded train while he leaned on the duffel bag between his legs. A small hand pack was hanging loosely from a strap over his arm.

Suddenly he felt a sharp tug on the pack. He looked up and saw a girl running down the aisle of the railroad car, preparing to jump off the train as it slowed down to stop at a small town. Quickly assessing the situation, he leapt toward the open door. A crashing blow to his back sent him sprawling out onto the ground.

Doubled up in pain, he managed to get to his feet. Several persons had gathered around him, but none could speak English. Whoever had hit him had escaped in the crowd, so he got back on the train.

“I checked my pack and found that my passport was missing, as well as two hundred dollars I had carefully placed in the bottom of the pack.”

He was in remote northeastern India with hundreds of miles ahead of him—and now he was penniless.

A Nepalese traveler sitting next to him on the train saw his plight, and when he learned that the American had been a doctor at respected Shanta Bhawan, he gave him some money to help him complete his journey to New Delhi.

Steve finally managed to contact the American Consul’s office in New Delhi. He had been expected, officials said, and the aide assigned to handle his departure was a Latter-day Saint! With the comfort and attention of the Saints in New Delhi, Steve managed to obtain a new passport, health certificates, and money enough to arrive home before his exams, with only a few hours to spare.

He considers those eventful six months the most valuable experience of his life. “I found in Nepal what life should hold for me,” he said. “It became clear that the proper values of life can be found by all of us, whether rich or poor, and they involve living as faithful members of the Church and serving our fellowmen.”

Looking back over his adventure, Steve says he is reminded of his blessings in life. And when he returned to New Mexico, he found another blessing. His young wife, Penny, whom he had left in Albuquerque, presented him with a new baby daughter. It was, after all, a happy ending to a remarkable experience.

[photos] Top row, left to right: Patient being carried to clinic; examining cholera patients; a Nepali. Middle: monks at prayer. Bottom: rice harvest on the threshing floor.

Brother Palmer, Sunday School teacher in Spring Valley (California) Ward, is a reporter-writer for the San Diego Evening Tribune.