KATHMANDU, Nepal — In the shadow of the Himalayas, there's a hazard few Americans would ever think about — open fires.
The fires are used in most homes in Nepal for cooking, heating and light. The flames put millions of people at risk, and the most frequent victims are children.
Now, thanks to a Salt Lake businessman, help is coming for Nepali children and adults who are disfigured by burn injuries or by cleft palates, a common birth defect in Nepal.
"I wanted to give something back to Nepal," said Jim Webber, speaking to a crowd that gathered in Kathmandu at opening ceremonies for the Nepal Cleft and Burn Center.
Webber spearheaded a fundraising campaign for the clinic from his Salt Lake City store. Many of the carpets Webber sells at Foothill Oriental Rugs are created by a manufacturing enterprise he set up in Nepal. Seeing a need for improved medical care, Webber launched his effort to build a clinic, expecting other American rug dealers to join him in the effort. But when the recession hit in 2008, the other dealers backed out. Webber pressed on.
"Back then it was just a dream," he told the crowd. "But, over the years, with tiny steps and perseverance, we have achieved this, which to me is nothing short of miraculous."
After a fundraising campaign that collected more than a half-million dollars, the clinic turned out to be bigger and more ambitious than Webber originally expected, thanks to a boost from the government of Nepal.
"Once we got it up out of the ground," Webber said, "they could see the potential in it and they started funding it."
The Nepal Cleft and Burn Center has now been organized as a teaching hospital. Surgeons and medical workers will be trained to develop skills in the reconstructive plastic surgery techniques that will be the clinic's specialty.
According to the clinic's medical director, Dr. Shangkar Rai, a shortage of trained personnel, especially in remote areas of Nepal, has severely limited the opportunity for victims to get reconstructive surgery.
"In the average," Rai said, "when somebody gets burned, they wait for a period of 18 years to get (an operation)."
Chatting in a clinic burn ward, Rai noted a toddler who was severely disfigured by burns from a cooking fire.
"She kind of slipped from the hands of the mother onto the fireplace," Rai said. "So that's how she got burned."
Another girl, roughly 10 years old, had numerous burn injuries and lived with the hideous scarring for years.
"She fell onto hot oil," Rai said, "and this happened when she was very young."
The new facility — seeded by money from Utah — could be a game-changer. Reconstructive surgery can help lead people toward happier lives, as was the case with the disfigured girl.
"She looked (at) herself (in) the mirror," Rai said, "and she's very happy now."
The annual fundraiser and charity auction for the Nepal Cleft and Burn Center will be held Friday, May 2, at Foothill Oriental Rugs, 1460 S. Foothill Drive. Attendees should call the store to RSVP at 801-582-3500.
Contributing: Scott Carrier, Trent Harris