When the Kunde hospital was built in 1966, New Zealanders John and Diane McKinnon were the first volunteers to help run the hospital.
In 1965, with his plans for the Kunde hospital well underway, Sir Ed was on the look out for his first doctor.
He rang Dr John McKinnon. Would he and Diane like the position?
“It took us three seconds to say yes to that,” said John.
John was a mountaineer and he’d been part of Sir Ed’s 1964 Thamserku climbing expedition, which also helped build the Lukla airstrip, a bridge and a few schools.
Diane, who was teaching at the time, said: “It sounded like a wonderful adventure. I’d be able to take English classes at the school, which made me feel I’d be able to contribute something.”
After a selection process by Volunteer Service Abroad, the McKinnons were on their way to what would be their new home for the next two years.
“The chilly wind of Tibet whistled round our little home,” said John. “But I’d sink deeper into my carpeted chair. We’re glad to be there. We were having a fabulous time!”
“What was extraordinary was the isolation,” he added. “It took two weeks to trek to Kathmandu. And in 1966 there were hardly any trekkers.”
John and Diane may have been isolated from other westerners, but they were far from being alone. The 300 people of Kunde welcomed them into their homes and their lives.
In his medical work, John averaged about 10 to 20 patients a day. Typical cases included diarrhoeal infections and worms, gastritis and peptic ulcers, dental extractions and treatments for cuts, falls and burns.
There was also the follow up work to the thyroid treatment. Goitre and cretinism were widespread in the mountain communities in Nepal, caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. John went house to house offering iodine injections to those who hadn’t had them. Iodine injections had already started to bring noticeable results, goitres were shrinking and no cretins were being born.
John also began the first treatments for TB, a disease of overwhelming importance for the doctors who worked at the Kunde and Phaplu hospitals.
“In Nepal, TB was everywhere,” said John. “With treatment there could be a miraculous transformation. One of our first patients was Tsumje Puti, an emaciated 10-year old close to death. But within three months of therapy, she was a glowing, lively little girl.”
A joy to teach
Diane began teaching English at Khumjung school every morning alongside headmaster Tem Dorje, an excellent teacher who set very high standards.
Each morning as she walked from the hospital to the school, Di would be joined by a swelling crowd of laughing children.
She said: “There was a lot of rote learning but a lot of fun too. There were school concerts and the parents loved those. I taught English and those with a good ear ended up with a Kiwi accent without knowing it. They loved school. They soaked it up like a sponge. They were a joy to teach.”
As their first year went by, John and Di settled more deeply into the life of the community.
Sense of belonging
John wrote: “That sense of belonging was wonderful. The way you could walk around and know every person, every bend on the track. It was one of the hardest things when we came home, not feeling part of the community the way we were in Nepal.”
In his second year, John began removing cataracts from the eyes of old people who had become so blind they could no longer walk without help. To the patients it was a miracle. After the operation they could see again. Their vision may have been blurred but they could see well enough to find their way around the village. Experiencing what could be achieved with cataract surgery led John to a career in ophthalmology.
John and Di left Kunde in August 1968. A week later, their son Dorje McKinnon was born in Kathmandhu and the young family began to plan their life back in New Zealand.
For both John and Di, Kunde had been a life-changing experience.
Di said: “What mattered in the end were the warm and lasting friendships, the people you lived with, laughed and cried with.”
“I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I hadn’t gone to Nepal. It was an extraordinary part of our lives,” added John.
Sir Ed, who was in Kunde at the time of the McKinnons farewell, wrote: “The contribution by the McKinnons to the welfare of the Sherpas was remarkable. There were dignified speeches, simple gifts to the McKinnons and expressions of thanks from the many who believed their lives had been saved.”
John and Di now live in Nelson and remain active members of the Himalayan Trust New Zealand. They are regular visitors to Nepal and recently took part in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Kunde hospital where they were welcomed as guests of honour.
In 2002, Dr Kami Temba became the first Sherpa doctor to take over the full management of the hospital. Today, the hospital is fully staffed by Nepali medical professionals and funded by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation of Canada.
Adapted from Chapter 2 of Himalayan Hospitals by Dr Mike Gill.