On April 25, Keyna Bracken, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University, was mere hours away from watching the town of Patan shrink into a dot from her airplane window when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal.
Keyna recalls the airport lounge moments before the ground started to move. “I heard a penetrating silence. You know that there is something wrong because it’s just too still.”
The quiet of the airport waiting room was broken up by what Keyna likens to the sound of a train. Having travelled to Haiti post-earthquake with St. Joseph’s relief group and experiencing a number of aftershocks, Keyna recognized the sound for what it was–the oncoming earthquake.
“The ground began to move, and not a gentle rocking either, but a really nasty movement–it’s more of a high impact wave. You can’t really go anywhere… because you get tossed around.”
Keyna took shelter under a table and waited it out before she was able to run past a now deserted security gate. She had made it onto the runway with the others, but there was no direction amongst the crowd and she was unable to speak Nepalese, forcing her to do nothing but wait.
“You could see the dust in the air from Kapmandu, and knowing what those buildings were like, I figured that most of them had probably collapsed. When you walk along [the Nepalese streets], only for a couple of hours, you realize why–many of the buildings are not concrete and don’t have foundations.”
With the help of an expatriate Canadian who spoke both English and Nepalese, Keyna made it to the guesthouse in which he had been staying. “That night was probably the most terrifying night that I had ever been through. I felt very alone even though there were [many] stranded people [in] this guesthouse that a Nepalese gentleman had opened up for everybody. Several times there were pretty significant aftershocks… You’re on a perpetual adrenaline hit for 36 hours.”
When light finally broke in the sky and airplane engines roared to life, Keyna knew that she had to get on a plane and get out that day. The airport was a different kind of terror; she had to push her way through the frantic crowd all coveting a seat on a plane out of the rumbling country.
“I was just so fortunate. I could have been in one of those temples. It could have been the day before when I was visiting tourist sites. I was the one that had a flight, and [others had] no way of getting a ticket unless you had outside help.”
After three hours, Keyna was able to break through the crowd and make it onto an airplane heading to Bangkok.
“When the plane finally started to lift off you couldn’t actually see any of the collapse because of the dust. Usually Kapmandu is dusty because it gets trapped in the valley, but the dust after was just incredible. You couldn’t see anything.”
Keyna, who is planning her imminent sabbatical year, had been in Kapmandu to scope out possibilities for collaboration with the Patan Academy of Health Sciences. The Academy is a Medical School and Hospital in the old part of Patan. It is partially founded by the Nick Simon Institute, an organization aimed at training all-encompassing physicians for remote areas. Her next destination was Banda Aceh, an area hit by the 2004 tsunami that ravaged the Indonesian landscape.
“I carried on with my plans… I think that was a good thing, because the resiliency of the Indonesian people after such a horrible event highlights what you can hope to aspire. It was interesting going from an area that had a fresh tragedy to an area that had a ten year old tragedy.”
Keyna has now been reunited with her family in Canada, but her time in Nepal remains fresh. She still wakes up at night thinking that the ground is shaking. During the day, she counts her luck in sturdy buildings, in foundation, in roads and in a still ground.