No mountain high enough

The Singapore Youth Award (SYA) is Singapore’s highest accolade for youth, conferred on inspirational individuals who have displayed courage, resilience, leadership and a spirit of service, making a positive difference in the community around them. This five-part retrospective revisits previous recipients of the Award, and how they continue to change lives and touch hearts.

Not even the earth itself could stop Dr Kumaran Rasappan (centre) from rendering medical assistance in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake. PHOTO: GIN TAY
Not even the earth itself could stop Dr Kumaran Rasappan (centre) from rendering medical assistance in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake. PHOTO: GIN TAY

Where lesser men would have hesitated, Dr Kumaran Rasappan chose to step straight into the belly of the beast. 

When the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal left almost 9,000 dead and more than 22,000 injured, the orthopaedic surgery resident knew he could not stand idly by and watch the country he loved languish in silence. 

His wife, Dr Gayathri Devi Nadarajan, had already been dispatched to Kathmandu for medical aid as part of a Ministry of Health delegation, but he did not find himself among the chosen. 

He was crushed. Nepal had become a second home to him over his mountain-climbing journey.

In 2012, he helped to refurbish the medical posts and served as a doctor in the village of Phortse, the home of the Sherpas who had assisted him during his time in the Everest region. The same year, he and his secondary school teacher, Mr Pillay Krishnan, helped to set up a computer lab for the Shree Saraswati Higher Secondary School in the Gorkha municipality.

Providing urgent relief

Dr Kumaran knew he had to do something in the aftermath of the earthquake because many of his friends were stranded in the country and needed assistance.

Less than a week after the quake had hit, he signed up with non-governmental organisation Mercy Relief for volunteer relief efforts in Kathmandu.

Dr Kumaran (front row, fourth from right) and the Mercy Relief team. PHOTO: DR KUMARAN RASAPPAN

While they were not equipped to handle the more delicate surgical procedures, he and a colleague were posted to a local tertiary hospital to help with orthopaedic surgeries.

“Some of the doctors hadn’t gone home at all since the quake hit, due to the high number of surgical case loads,” he recalls. “We managed to give them some time to sleep and eat, while we performed some of the simpler parts of the surgeries.”

More helping hands needed

But Dr Kumaran’s work was not done. Yet another threat loomed on the horizon: The monsoon rains were fast approaching, and hundreds of villagers from the Gorkha had been left without shelter due to the earthquake — many of whom he had met during his last visit to Shree Saraswati. 

So he sprang into action. Upon his return to Singapore in May 2015, he, Dr Gayathri and Mr Krishnan raised almost $40,000 in the span of just two weeks. Their efforts provided more than 700 villagers with shelter from the storm to come.

But Dr Kumaran could only do so much before work and life called for his attention. As a senior orthopaedic surgery resident in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, he had responsibilities back home to attend to. 

How, then, he wondered, could he continue to help the country that so desperately needed it? 

Members of the Mercy Relief team assisting with surgical procedures in the aftermath of the earthquake. PHOTO: DR KUMARAN RASAPPAN

His answer came to him later that year. Having heard about his relief efforts in Gorkha, some students from Nanyang Technological University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine approached him to start an overseas community involvement project (OCIP) to render medical assistance to remote villages in Nepal. 

“It was the perfect opportunity to start a long-term project. I’d always wanted to establish something in Nepal that could grow and develop into something greater,” he says.

Project of hope

He and the students established a two-pronged approach to healthcare provision, focusing primarily on eye healthcare, and maternal and neonatal care. 

To date, Project Aasha, meaning “hope” in Nepali, has sent eye surgeons, physiotherapy students as well as medical and nursing students to Nepal. 

Members of Project Aasha demonstrating first aid to students in Nepal. PHOTO: DR KUMARAN RASAPPAN

This year will see clinician physiotherapists and radiographers taking part for the first time, with plans to get radiologists, obstetrics and gynaecology specialists and other allied health professionals involved in the pipeline. 

In particular, Dr Kumaran and the Project Aasha team are concentrating efforts on the village of Bung, which sees high neonatal infant mortality rates. 

Dr Gayathri will lead a team to Bung to educate the villagers on maternal and neonatal emergencies, as well as immediate measures to take in a resource-limited setting in order to reduce maternal and neonatal deaths. 

The team will also screen for high-risk pregnancies, so mothers at risk can be referred to tertiary medical care in time. 

Bringing in dental specialists is next on the horizon for Dr Kumaran, who notes that eye surgeons and dentists are the most difficult for patients to access in Nepal.

“It’s been tough work so far, but I’m sure we can do it,” he says. 

Dr Kumaran (far left) with some young patients in Nepal. PHOTO: DR KUMARAN RASAPPAN

His confidence is not misplaced. After all, he has scaled some of the highest mountains in the world, including Makalu and the fearsome K2, to raise funds for the Singapore National Stroke Association and Home Nursing Foundation.

Nonetheless, the statement gives one pause. His sentences have been punctuated thus far by the occasional cough that suggests the onset of a cold from too many long hours. Juggling the workload of a medical professional with the monumental scale of his relief efforts does take a toll on the body. 

But make no mistake, this is a man who is himself a force of nature. Everest could not stop him. Neither could the earth itself when Nepal was rocked by an earthquake. 

There really is no mountain too high for Dr Kumaran Rasappan.