Stories from Bhutan 2014

Posted by Surgicorps Volunteer, Betsy Utterback. Made possible by the generosity of Surgicorps volunteers and donors.

Sonam Wagmo

The love and support of Sonam Wagmo’s daughters convinced her to let go of her fears and finally come see the Surgicorps doctors. For over 50 years, Sonam lived with a cleft lip and palate. Due to these deformities, her speech patterns never fully developed and eating and speaking were a hardship. And although we assume that the appearance of her face affected her quality of life, she is a happy woman who coped with her disability. She had no idea how much easier life would have been with a corrective procedure that we see performed at home in the first year of life.

Sonam is a divorced mother of three. Her daughter, Bumjay Llama, brought her on the 9 hour bus ride to Paro where Dr. Demos and the team repaired her cleft lip. It was Bumjay’s insistence that convinced Sonam to have the operation. Her family felt that although she lived her life on earth with this disability, she should not go to the afterlife with it!!

Bumjay is a vivacious woman with a great sense of humor. Even though we had to rely on our interpreters, her sharp wit translated well! After her mother’s surgery, Bumjay’s first response was “Ok, Mommy. Now you can look for a new husband!”

Today, Sonam is back in Samse working as a weaver for a shop that makes the traditional women’s Kiras and men’s Ghos worn by the Bhutanese. Kiras are ankle length skirts which are wrapped around the waist and worn with a short silk jacket. The Gho is the traditional and national dress for men who wear them knee length and belted with a “kera”. Kneesocks and tie shoes complete the outfit for men. Traditional Kiras and Ghos are required to be worn by students in school, government workers or for any state functions. A bright sash called a “kabney” is worn over the shoulder diagonally for ceremonial functions.

Probably the most rewarding moment of the trip was watching Sonam finally look into the mirror after refusing to do so for a day. Her precious, tentative smile reflected her quiet excitement. She could not have squeezed my hand any harder. Of course, she was still not feeling 100%, but she managed to say thank you repeatedly.


Sonam Yangdon

Imagine yourself as a beautiful 14 year old girl walking alone along a familiar path to meet a friend when all of a sudden, a bear jumps in front of you and proceeds to maul you. This was Sonam, the unfortunate victim of an unprovoked bear attack eight years ago. Her face was literally swiped off by the claws of the bear who fortunately retreated before killing this terrified girl. In shock, she managed to run to a neighbor’s house. From there, she was taken to the local clinic in her small town of Mongara where they could only gave her painkillers.

The next day, she was taken to a doctor in Punukha who began to treat her injuries, but did not have the training or equipment to properly reconstruct the damage. In 2006, Sonam and her family heard that the Surgicorps doctors were in Paro. It was a two day trip but she managed to meet Dr. Jack Demos and his team who began the first of seven surgeries to repair Sonam’s face.

The tragedy could have destroyed Sonam’s life, but it did not. She returned to her studies in a school for children with disabilities in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. And it was in this school where she met her husband who had suffered spinal cord injuries after a motorbike accident. Last year, Sonam returned to Paro for her seventh surgery but had to delay this procedure for a year because of her pregnancy! In 2014, accompanied by her adorable 9 month old baby boy, she had her surgery. The team was so happy to meet her son; and Sonam was obviously proud and excited for everyone to see that she is living her life despite her difficulties. Sonam’s husband, who works as a tailor, and her sister accompanied her to the hospital.

Sonam and her husband now live with their son and her parents in Punukha, a 3 hour bus ride from Paro. Sonam spends her days like many young mothers, doing house chores, taking care of the baby and cooking. She loves to prepare curry dishes and surprisingly, loves to watch American horror movies on TV. Sonam leads a quiet life but she is happy and very grateful to “Dr. Jack” and the Surgicorps team for all they have done. She plans to be back next year for another surgery; and the team looks forward to another happy reunion!


Migmar Dorji

Migmar is a happy 12 year old boy who suffered facial and burns on the right side of his body when he was 2 years old. The mosquito netting under which he was sleeping caught fire when the wind blew it into an open flame of a kerosene lamp. This year, the Surgicorps team performed its fourth operation on Migmar whose aunt plans to bring him in each year to continue the reconstructive process.

Migmar is from Gelephu in the southern part of Bhutan. It is a 2 day bus ride from Paro on roads which can be difficult to navigate. His lives with his grandparents. He is a typical fourth grader in many ways who loves to play with his friends, but he has no interest in playing sports! He loves math and watching Indian cartoons on TV. His favorite is “Chota Bheem”, a popular cartoon for the Bhutanese children. Migmar’s beautiful smile is always present and reflects his personality.


Tashi Om

Tashi is a quiet and reserved 19 year old who was inspired to enter the nunnery when she was very young. She believes that the best way for her to serve this world is by being a nun and reaching out to those less fortunate. Although she comes from a poor family, she feels blessed to have so much. She wants to project goodness and kindness to all.

Tashi lives in a nunnery housing 90 nuns in Thimpu, the capitol of Bhutan. Her days are spent meditating, memorizing prayers and planning good deeds to share. She feared that before she entered the nunnery last year, she would “do bad things”. She also said that due to the difficulty in obtaining jobs for women in Bhutan, she felt that being a nun would be a vocation which would protect her from being alone and unemployed. Tashi also insisted that I mention her best friend, Nawang Choden who she admires for her selflessness and piety.

The Surgicorps doctors operated on the birthmark on Tashi’s left cheek and removed half this year to minimize scaring. She will return in 2015 to have the rest eliminated. Although she has lived with the mark all of her life, she wanted to be “cleansed of it”. Tashi was a joy to meet and she hopes to continue our friendship through email.


Kinzang Choden

Kinzang was a “happy surprise” baby whose 3 brothers and 2 sisters range from 19 to 29 years of age. She is a very happy and playful little girl who is loved and taken care of by her father, sisters and uncle. Her mother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage a few years ago so her father relies on the extended family to help raise his challenged 9 year old daughter. Kinzang is unable to speak and suffers from developmental issues. She does not go to school and she has no friends according to her father, but he feels that the love of the family is all she needs.

The family lives on a farm in Paro so it was relatively easy to bring Kinzang to the hospital where the Surgicorps doctors repaired her cleft palate. Throughout her hospital stay, she had a smile on her face and you could feel the love and support of her family. It is quite common for extended families to live together and support one another in Bhutan.


Dechu Kumari

Dechu is a bright, social and very friendly 14 year old girl who has travelled from Thimpu for the last 3 years to consult with the Surgicorps doctors. Each year, Dr. Demos and the team have improved her facial features in stages. This year, Dechu and her family made the trip to Paro for a surgery to elongate and narrow her nose. While Dechu recuperated in the hospital, her mother stayed with her in her room and her father slept in the car. Dechu was later joined by her older sister who will be going to the University of Calcutta in June. She has one brother who has the prestigious position of being an attendant to the king’s sister.

Dechu and her parents feel it is very important to Dechu’s future to improve the appearance of her nose and mouth. You could feel the anxiety of the parents and their concern to make their daughter more attractive. They have been persistent throughout the years to make sure that Dechu receives care from our doctors. They wait each year for the Surgicorps medical team to perform these surgeries because they trust that Dechu will receive the best care. There are few, if any, doctors in Bhutan who are trained to perform surgery on the deformities that the Surgicorps team expertly completes in conditions which are less than ideal! It would otherwise be necessary for patients to travel to India or Bangkok for such operations.


Karma Wangchuck

Karma is the 10 month old daughter of a young couple who traveled 4 hours from Wangdue to reach the hospital in Paro where the Surgicorps team repaired the baby’s bilateral cleft lip. This family is one of the more fortunate in that they have relatives in Paro with whom they stayed during this week while their first child recovered from her operation. And although the family entered the hospital quite nervously, they felt that they could “trust the American doctors” with their firstborn.

Karma’s mother is a stay-at-home mom and her father works at a hydropower plant as a construction assistant. In cooperation with India, Bhutan has undertaken many hydroelectric projects. Hydropower is of primary importance to the economic progress of the country. There is virtually no petroleum or natural gas reserves in Bhutan, although they do have 1.3 million tons of coal reserves which they use only for domestic use. Due to the high mountains, rivers and deep gorges, Bhutan has an abundance of hydro power. However, with the increased demand for energy, alternative sources will need to be developed, although many households rely on simple wood burning methods for heat and cooking.


Kuenzang Dema

It was such a pleasure to meet this very sweet, intelligent couple from Manguar, a small town which lies about 450km from Paro. They now live in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan so their drive was relatively easy. They stayed with cousins who live in Paro. This was Dema’s fifth visit to the Surgicorps team. Dema’s condition—Rhomberg’s Disease— requires the injection of fat cells into her chin.

coupleThe couple spoke English very well so it was a bit easier for me to understand their enthusiasm for their new married life and the love for one another. Dema works as a tax officer and her husband is a documentary film editor. They met through her cousin in Thimpu. In their late 20s, they are like any other young couple who is looking forward to starting a family as a professional couple. They live in an apartment in the city; and they both love to cook Bhutanese dishes and watch soccer on TV. Dema likes her job as a “civil servant” working primarily in the corporate tax division of the government. Her husband, Tempa went to university in India and studied digital communication for two years. Many of the documentaries he edits are on the democracy of the new Bhutan. Other films advocate the cultural aspects and traditions of the Bhutanese people. Both of them could not imagine having no television! They both felt that without it, the small villages are totally abandoned. All communication, including the details of Surgicorps visit to Paro, could not be possible without it! Tempa’s animated description of a changing Bhutan and its future growth was exciting. Their enthusiasm marks a new era for the country under a new and admired young king and the new, developing constitution.

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