The Journal News
June 2, 2015
Westchester Nurse Travels to Nepal to Help Earthquake Survivors
Jamie Berndt, RN, Phelps Memorial Hospital
Jamie Berndt was packing her bags in late April for a monthlong volunteer relief trip to India when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck neighboring Nepal, devastating the country and killing more than 8,000 civilians.
Berndt, 27, an emergency room nurse at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center and Buchanan resident, decided on the spot to change her plans. She quickly reached out to NYCMedics, a nonprofit organization, where she was teamed with volunteer doctors, physician assistants, nurses and paramedics headed to Nepal to treat the thousands injured in the earthquake.
After arriving on May 1 in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, her team was sent two hours away to the Dhading Besi district, close to the earthquake's epicenter, then flown to nearby communities accessible only by helicopter.
Because they arrived just five days after the April 25 quake, much of their initial relief effort focused on survival.
"The World Health Organization had shifted from health as a first priority to food and shelter, but there were still a lot of victims," Berndt said. "We were primarily doing medical work, but if we saw a need and we weren't as busy that day, we would help them with whatever they needed."
That included building shelters.
NYCMedics was founded on being a "mobile medical" organization. Volunteers in the organization go to remote areas and bring pre-hospital medicine to victims in the field. Members in the group travel lightly, carrying their food, water and shelter on their backs.
"We work in a fluid environment," said Phil Suarez, director of operations at NYCMedics. "You have to be very versatile, because with disaster sites, you never know what you'll see."
Some days involved carrying heavy backpacks full of medical equipment several miles through rough terrain at high altitude, and some nights were spent in tents among civilians. Working in the lowlands beneath the Himalayan Mountains during monsoon season made relief efforts even more of a challenge.
"It was about 100 degrees during the day and at night it's raining, thundering and lightning. There (were) landslides ... there were four or five aftershocks every day," Berndt said.
With each tremor, people feared that the next big earthquake might be coming.
"You would see a chandelier start swinging, and in those cases I would run out of the building," Berndt said. "It was intimidating."
On May 12, while Berndt and her team were still in Dhading, a second massive earthquake struck, this time at magnitude 7.3. It was unlike anything Berndt had ever felt.
"With an aftershock, [the ground] shakes and it kind of feels like something drops," Berndt explained. "But with the second earthquake, it felt like the ground was being pulled from under you."
She estimated that there were 15 landslides in the area where she was in the days following the second quake. Because the village she was in had already endured so much damage in the first quake, this one caused little further destruction. Still, the surrounding area was in worse condition and now more people needed help.
"There were times when we tried to go to locations and we were told we couldn't because they were inaccessible because of landslides, and that's why the people couldn't leave," Berndt said.
Berndt had worked in impoverished cities in India in 2014, but she never saw deprivation like that in Nepal after the earthquakes. She recalled seeing two orphaned siblings, ages 5 and 3, who had lost their parents in the first quake.
"There are no orphanages or anything in these villages, so it's just the community that takes care of them," Berndt said. "Seeing the five-year-old sister holding him and caring for him, because they had lost both their parents, it was just unbelievable."
Berndt plans on volunteering in south Asia again soon. She would like to pursue her master's degree in public health and is considering a permanent move abroad. She also said that she wants to start a program through Phelps to help support orphaned children in Nepal.
"[The Nepalese people] are so resilient and welcoming," she said. "These people don't have jobs and they have no money, because they live off the land, so we're really trying to help them out."