Wendy Marston has lived in Nepal for 35 years—far longer than she and her family lived in their other homes in Scotland, Egypt, Germany, or Singapore. Yet she had spent two decades in the country before a chance encounter with a Nepali plastic surgeon, Dr. Keshav Das Joshi, made it possible for her to visit the government hospital in Kathmandu and see the conditions under which doctors worked. “It was awful, I mean really, really awful,” she recalls. Though she had found many ways throughout the years to volunteer, it was this visit and Dr. Joshi’s determination to do better for those in his care that convinced Wendy to focus her efforts on helping him care for his many patients suffering from burns.
Wendy learned that many fires in Nepal are ignited by candles or tuki oil lamps, both of which can easily fall over, igniting bed-clothes, curtains, or clothes. In some cases, women whose circumstances are desperate light themselves on fire or are lit on fire during domestic disputes. “Education and awareness could prevent so much suffering,” Wendy explains, “but burn victims are stigmatized in Nepal and few programs existed to help avoid these tragedies before they occur.”
Wendy set to work immediately, calling upon her network of friends to donate sheets, blankets, and medicine. A year later, when Dr. Joshi opened a very modestly equipped burn unit in Bir Hospital in Kathmandu, Wendy stepped forward again, this time offering help in the form of counseling to address the depression and social isolation of the many badly burned young women he was treating. Wendy says, “When a poor girl marries, she might live two doors away from her family, but when she has a problem, she can’t go back home. She belongs to her husband’s family. Often, this means she is alone, stigmatized, and without the love and support she needs to heal.”
In 2008, Wendy helped establish Burns Violence Survivors Nepal (BVS-Nepal), an NGO that today works with doctors at Bir Hospital and Kanti Children’s Hospital. “In both facilities treatment and care is limited to the basics,” she says. “We add and improve where we can, raising money to pay for things such as surgical costs, dressings and medicines, counseling, physiotherapy, prosthetic limbs, toys, heaters, fans, blankets, and medical gowns. BVS-Nepal also educates the public about fire prevention by staging street plays, airing radio spots, and posting stickers on public transport.”
Wendy can recount many success stories, like that of Sagar, who was badly burned at age 10. “He was walking home from school when he saw a goat lying with its legs up in the air,” Wendy says. What he could not have known when he reached out to touch the goat was that it was lying on an electricity line which had fallen down on the wet grass. As he touched it, the live current went through his body and he was electrocuted. By the time he reached the government hospital many days later, both his legs had to be amputated above the knees and his head was badly burned.
With the help of doctors and BVS-Nepal, Sagar recovered and was able to return to school in a new wheelchair. “He graduated second in his class!” says Wendy. “But then no college would enroll him because of his condition.” After a desperate search, Wendy convinced a friend who owns an excellent boarding school that she would raise funds for his room and meals if he could be provided free tuition. Sagar is now excelling at his studies. “He wants to be a surgeon, ”she says.“ And he’s taken up cricket!”
Wendy’s reward for her years of devoted efforts is the knowledge that she is making a small difference for those in need. When asked about her inspiration, she offers a simple childhood memory that truly says it all. “I always remember the character in the children’s book The Water Babies. Her name was ‘Mrs. Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By.’”