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Nurses help orphans in Tibet

September 11, 2010

September 10, 2010

Two Salinas-area nurses are newly home and still
sorting through a host of fresh impressions left
after working with children in a Tibetan orphanage.

"I'll definitely go back," Renee Comee said.

A registered nurse who lives in Las Palmas Ranch
and who works in Salinas Valley Memorial
Hospital's emergency room, Comee is one of the nurses.

The other is Julie Robinson, also a registered nurse in the ER.

Their Tibetan destination was the Chushul Home,
an orphanage built of gray stone 40 miles outside the city of Lhasa.

"I was so excited to go," Comee said. "I'd never been to China or Tibet."

They stayed in Lhasa and commuted to the
orphanage in a bus owned by a nearby monastery and driven by a monk.

"The 'Monk Bus,' we called it," Comee said.

Their trip lasted from July 30 to Aug. 11.

The orphanage in which they helped was started by
Peggy Day, a Himalayan guide for the past 25 years.

Twelve years ago, Day raised $30,000. With the
Dalai Lama's blessings and with the helping hands
of Tibet's sturdy villagers, she built the first
of three buildings at the orphanage.

Day, who lives in Sausalito just north of the
Golden Gate Bridge, briefed Comee and Robinson on
their destination and on Tibetan culture.

Once in Tibet, Comee and Robinson had to adjust
to a leap in altitude. They went, after all, from
breathing near sea level -- as in the Salinas
Valley -- to breathing at 11,800 feet near the foothills to the Himalayas.

They faced the glare of high-altitude sunlight
and the thin, high-level atmosphere as well as rain, heat and hail.

They ate Tibetan food, including noodles and
dumplings stuffed with chili-spiced yak meat. They

drank yak-butter tea served hot with salt or sugar.

"Yak butter is used for many things, including
making candles in the monasteries," Comee said.

The two nurses' mission was not to provide health care.

"This [orphanage] is a 'home' for these
children," Comee said. "Our role was to sort of make it more comfortable."

The women brought instruments -- guitars,
amplifiers, keyboards, drumsticks, harmonicas -- to the youths.

"Julie plays keyboards," Comee said. "We played
with the children. We did crafts."

The children, naturally, yearned for affection,
attention and human interaction, and the nurses helped provide that.

"They craved mothering," Comee said.

They helped the children practice their English, too.

Among other shared experiences, all went
paddle-boating in a lake at the base of Potola,
the winter palace of the Dalai Lama, who is in exile.

His 1,000-room palace -- it took 100 years to
construct -- is a majestic edifice crowning a hilltop.

The Chushul Home housed 28 orphans ranging from ages 7 to 24.

Each child originally arrived at the orphanage
through a traditional heavy wooden Tibetan
doorway under an ornately carved, gold-painted overhang.

Each child came with a story of struggle and
survival and often great accomplishment.

Among the residents, for example, is Sonam Dekyi, 13.

Nuns found the girl when she was 2. Abandoned by
her parents, she lay under a bridge next to a
rushing river. The nuns rescued the toddler and
brought her to Chushul Home, where she has lived 11 years.

Another of the residents, Phur Bu Lhama, 24, the
oldest of the orphans, graduated from nursing school after four years.

Several adults stay at the orphanage
around-the-clock, one being the resident "Mommy."
She serves as governess and cook, and offers the
children guiding principles for a prosperous and happy life.

"Study hard," Mommy tells them. "Be a good person. Don't marry too young."

Comee and Robinson ended up in Tibet when Day's
philanthropy work put her in touch with Sam
Downing, chief executive officer of SVMH. Day
asked Downing if he would e-mail hospital staff
to see if anyone would be interested in working in Chushul Home.

Comee and Robinson volunteered.

Even after so few days, strong bonds had formed
between the children and their visitors.

Leaving, saying goodbye to the children, proved
more difficult than anyone expected.

Nearing the end of their stay, Comee and Robinson
gathered with the children in the orphanage quadrangle.

"The children lined up on the steps like a
choir," Comee said. "One little boy was a good
guitar player, and he'd written a song for us."

He sang of a beautiful Tibetan bird, which
visited for awhile but then flew away. The young
singer compared the two departing women to that beautiful bird.

"Even though the bird must one day fly away, it
would remain forever in the children's heart," the boy sang.

That was a moment for tears all around, Comee said.
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