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Detroit to Nepal

Apr 28, 2015

For years, Dr. Richard Keidan has lived two lives. Professionally, he is an elite cancer surgeon and a professor of surgery from an upscale Detroit suburb, one of the state’s best.

But his heart is in Nepal, where he spends at least three months of every year, climbing mountains, trudging to far-flung local villages, and pouring time and money into public health projects.

“This is my life’s work,” he told me when I first learned about it three years ago.

He’s thrown his heart into it, and right now his heart is hurting.

Nepal, as the world knows, was devastated by the nation’s biggest earthquake in nearly a century, a quake 22 times more powerful than the one that devastated Haiti five years ago.

Yesterday, Keidan told me that information from Nepal is extremely sketchy. He’s talked by phone with Ben Ayres, another American who runs a foundation in Nepal and lives full-time in Katmandu.

Ayres’s own house has been destroyed. He, like thousands of others, are living in tents in fields, lest a series of powerful aftershocks topple the buildings that are left.

Communication with Nepal’s interior is not far removed from the Stone Age.

But Ayres told Keidan that his understanding is that the projects he has been working on, in two villages near Mount Everest, have been severely damaged or destroyed.

Though more than 4,000 people have died in Nepal, casualties in Keidan’s adopted villages of Dipsung and Rakha are said to be light. But a medical school he’s been funding to train rural doctors may be completely gone.

Keidan, a tall and athletic man who looks younger than his 60 years, is frustrated.

He told me he would like to hop on a plane right now and go, but Nepal is essentially closed to all but emergency relief efforts, and even if he got there, getting 250 miles into the interior would be difficult or impossible.

Even in the best of times, he has to walk much of the way.

He’s been going to Nepal for more than 30 years, and knows how things operate. While massive foreign aid is pouring in, he told me, “I realize none of it will ever reach our marginalized villages.”

So, he is mobilizing his own foundation, Detroit2Nepal.org, to provide relief for his adopted Khotang District. Anyone interested can find out how to donate on the website, or sign up for what may be Michigan’s most strenuous fund-raising effort.

On May 8, anyone willing to donate $1,000 can be one of a select few who will rappel down Detroit’s iconic First National Building at the foot of Woodward, with the money to go for both earthquake relief and to benefit DAPCEP, the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering program. If, like me, you’d rather pay to avoid rappelling down anything, you can do that too.

What I’ve admired most about what Keidan has been doing in Nepal is that he avoids flashy demonstration projects and doesn’t go there to perform operations on the elite. He told me once that what he is doing in bringing modern toilets and rural medicine to a community will save far more lives.

It would be a shame to see all that he’s done come to nothing.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.