As pandemic rages in Nepal, local dentist looks to return to Montana
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Peter Schmieding, a Bozeman local who operates a dental practice in Big Sky and Ennis, sits on the seventh-floor terrace of Hotel Tibet in Kathmandu, Nepal, with his 19-year-old daughter, Maya Hyolmo. The early morning is painting the city smog with its sunrise palette, and the golden spire of the Boudha Stupa, a famous Buddhist temple, rises just higher than the mountainous silhouette in the background.
Schmieding has been coming to Nepal for decades to support Tsering’s Fund, a nonprofit he oversees in the south Asian country, but he isn’t supposed to be there now. While cases of COVID-19 are diminishing daily in Schmieding’s hometown where vaccinations are widely available, Nepal and neighboring India are in the violent clutch of the pandemic.
NBC reported on May 18 that the positivity rate in Nepal is 45 percent with 9,000 new cases emerging daily, a 3,000-percent increase from last month.
Schmieding is stuck at ground zero.
“Nepal has a pretty dilapidated medical system that is easily overwhelmed in the best of times, and this latest surge of COVID has just overwhelmed the medical system completely to the point where hospitals aren’t taking new patients, there’s a terrible lack of oxygen and respirators and ventilators,” Schmieding told EBS Editor-in-Chief Joe O’Connor during a May 17 interview.
On April 30, the Kathmandu Post reported a statement from Nepal’s Ministry of Health, who said that the health system is “not able to cope” with the crisis and that hospital beds cannot be made available.
“‘We give up.’ That’s what could be summed up from what the Ministry of Health said on Friday through a statement,” Arjun Poudel wrote for the Post.
Schmieding, who is fully vaccinated, was scheduled to return home to Bozeman on May 7, but Nepal locked down Kathmandu on April 26 effectively closing the international airport.
“We just had to hunker down and be part of the lockdown and try to do what work we could based out of our hotel here and try and get out as soon as we could,” Schmieding said.
Schmieding started Tsering’s Fund in 2006 with his wife, Karen Fellerhoff Schmieding, and their Nepal-based friend, Tsering Dolkar Lama. The fund connects underprivileged children, young women and families in Nepal with private donations to support education, medical care and basic living assistance.
In 2019, Tsering’s Fund and local filmmaker Wes Overvold released “Namaste Ramila,” a 13-minute documentary that examines education as salvation from sex trafficking through the life of Ramila Biswakarma and other Nepali girls.
Tsering’s Fund is currently working on a second documentary exploring the life of Hyolmo, who Schmieding adopted from Nepal two years ago. Schmieding traveled to Nepal most recently to visit Hyolmo, who is now a nursing student in Kathmandu, and to do some groundwork for the upcoming film.
Hyolmo grew up in Helambu in rural northern Nepal and was raised by her grandmother after her parents died when she was 4, according to Schmieding.
“When I learned that she had walked four to five hours a day to go to school each day, six days a week, with an elevation change of 3,000 feet, I just had to see it to believe it,” Schmieding said.
Hyolmo and Schmieding made a trip to Helambu before Kathmandu locked down so Schmieding could see firsthand what the daily trek was like. “It was just astounding,” Schmieding said.
This adversity is emblematic of the “headwinds” many Nepali children face, according to Schmieding. “I thought it would be worth chronicling in the documentary,” he said
Aside from a few staff members, Schmieding reported in a follow-up interview that he is now the only guest at Hotel Tibet International, which is owned by Dolkar Lama. His two daughters, Hyolmo and Lhakpa Sherpa, currently live in Kathmandu and have stayed with him when they’re not studying. Like Schmieding, Sherpa is fully vaccinated, but Hyolmo is not. Nepal suspended its vaccination program in April after running out of doses.
The variant currently bleeding into Nepal from India is called B.1.617 and is believed to be more transmissible and potentially resistant to some treatments. Schmieding is worried about Hyolmo but believes if she gets sick, he’ll be able to get her treatment in a hospital. For other Nepali people without money, though, Schmieding says they’d likely be denied oxygen and sent home to fend for themselves.
According to Schmieding, rural villages like where Hyolmo is from are more removed from the outbreaks but are not entirely safe.
“COVID has found its way into the villages but a lot of the villages are so remote with so very few people traveling from place to place to place …that it’s hard to know the extent,” he said, adding that the reporting in these areas is spotty and the medical care inconsistent. “Since there’s no medical care and very little testing, people either get ill and recover or get ill and don’t recover.”
The U.S. embassy recently arranged for Schmieding and other U.S. citizens to fly out on May 25 with Qatar Airways. He says it’s difficult to leave.
“When you get home, you … think about the people still suffering here, because it’s a lot different back in America where if you go to the hospital you will assume that you’ll get oxygen therapy if you need it, he said. “You’ll actually be fed if you’re admitted to the hospital.”
Schmieding suggested one way to help Nepal is by pressuring the U.S. government to provide aid like oxygen or vaccines. He also said Tsering’s Fund can be a conduit of relief through its work supporting orphanages, education for young girls and, recently, feeding the canine population that lives on the street.
Schmieding will return to his home, his dental practices and clients, leaving behind one mountainous landscape in peril for another in a much more stable state.