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Nepal Spine Foundation: A Classmate's Life-Changing Efforts

February 11, 2022 5:26 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

*click the image below to view the video on our youtube page

Video by Rick Brotman '73, featuring Dr. Richard Wohns '73 and Jacki Swearingen '73

A climbing expedition to Mt. Everest and treks through Nepal in the 1970s and 1980s led Dr. Richard Wohns ’73 to found the Nepal Spine Foundation in 2013 as a way to give back to the people there and to bring cutting edge neurosurgical techniques to a country often lacking in the latest medical resources. Today Dr. Wohns, a Seattle resident, and a team of fellow surgeons and nurses travel annually to Kathmandu to help perform spine surgery on patients at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital (TUTH) who suffer from debilitating and excruciating injuries and diseases including tuberculosis. In the months between those visits, Dr. Wohns and the foundation’s neurosurgeons meet monthly via Zoom with the faculty members and residents of TUTH to discuss surgical cases.

“I love the country, and I love the people,” said Dr. Wohns, who began trekking through the majestic Kathmandu Valley and climbing peaks such as K2 back when only a small number of climbers ventured up the world’s tallest mountains. Yet the splendor of the Himalayas has not blinded him to the country’s health-care crisis, especially in rural villages. With its population of 30 million, Nepal has only 100 neurosurgeons. “The implication is that people are waiting for care or never getting it,” Dr. Wohns added.

Arriving each year with donated spinal instruments, equipment and implants, Dr. Wohns and his team offer Nepalis who otherwise could not afford the devices and surgery a chance at a new life. Among the Foundation’s success stories is that of one young man, a laborer, who fell from a tree and broke his neck. Despite the collar prescribed by the local doctor, his pain worsened and some extremities grew numb. The young man walked nine days to the teaching hospital in Kathmandu where Dr. Wohns’ team was working. The donated screws, plates and expertise the team brought allowed the young man to receive the care he could otherwise not afford. “He did fine. He went back to the village and he could do work,” Dr. Wohns recalled.

Dr. Wohns estimates that Nepal needs at least 200 more neurosurgeons to provide the level of care that its population requires. Consequently, another key mission of the Nepal Spine Foundation is training faculty and residents in the latest techniques they normally would have difficulty learning without traveling outside Nepal. When the pandemic hit, Dr. Wohns and his team started monthly online meetings in which they lecture, help to read MRI’s and guide residents learning to present complicated cases.

“It’s always fun. It’s always interesting. It’s always educational,” said Dr. Wohns of collaborating virtually with his Nepali colleagues, including Dr. Sushil Shilpakar and Dr. Mohan Sharma, the first neurosurgeons trained at TUTH in the 1990s. Both physicians are now members of the Nepal Spine Institute’s Board of Directors. “We’ve got a growing audience with more people coming in from the Kathmandu community of neurosurgeons, not just those at TUTH.”

In November Dr. Wohns and the foundation team plan to return to Kathmandu for Spine Week, during which they hope to deliver 20 lectures and perform“a significant number of new spinal procedures,” he said. “I would love to have some of my 1973 classmates who are neurosurgeons join me,” he added, extending the invitations to others who are neurologists, physicians assistants, operating nurses, and pain specialists as well those skilled in online medical education. “People who have come with me have gotten the bug and have gotten to make really good friends there.”

Classmates and others who are not in health care can lend their support by donating to the Nepal Spine Foundation or joining in fundraising events such as the 2022 Trek to Everest Base Camp. Scheduled for November 11 to December 1 (with the option of helicoptering out of base camp earlier), the trek includes a significant donation to Tribhuvan hospital to promote neurosurgery as well as a final day spent observing the remarkable work of the hospital’s staff.

“The neurosurgeons at TUTH are tremendously skilled. We want to help them obtain all the tools needed to provide state-of-the-art care,” Dr. Wohns said.

ClassACT HR ‘73

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