Pitam Kuwar is a bolt of energy. His strong laugh, big heart, respectful nature, and ear-to-ear smile are hard to miss. If you ever find yourself in the iconic city of Pokhara, nestled in Nepal’s Himalayas, you are likely to find him paddling tourists around Phewa Lake. Pitam is more than just a tour guide, however. Some call him a local celebrity, but to those closest to him, he is a father, a humanitarian, a 4 dan Taekwondo master, a teacher, and a ReSurge patient.
But Pitam wasn’t always those things.
Growing up, he felt defined by a single trait–his cleft lip and cleft palate. “It was hard for me to talk and connect with people,” Pitam told us. “So many bullied or rejected me, and I didn’t believe that I deserved to have my own life or dream.”
Clefts are congenital conditions that occur when the mouth or lip does not close properly during prenatal development. Globally, about 1 in 700 babies are born with a cleft, causing difficulties in eating, breathing, hearing, and speaking. In most high-income countries clefts are operated on as soon as the child is born, but this is not the case for most low- and middle-income countries.
ReSurge Nepal Program Director, Dr. Shankar Man Rai is on a mission to ensure people like Pitam have access to safe, timely, and affordable surgical care. Dr. Rai has been getting funding and training from ReSurge for the past 30 years to bring this vision to life. To date, he and his local team of reconstructive surgeons have operated on more than 20,000 patients.
Pitam was one of those patients. His cleft palate was originally operated on by a visiting foreign doctor when he was a child. Initially, this was great, but as Pitam grew, he needed follow-up care and revisions for his bilateral cleft lip. But no one was there. He didn’t know where to turn. As a teenager, Pitam felt hopeless, like he didn’t deserve a place in society.
It wasn’t until he was 25 years old that Pitam met Dr. Rai. At last, a surgeon from Nepal who could speak his language and understand his culture. Not only would Dr. Rai operate on Pitam’s cleft lip for free, but he would also be there for the long term because of the permanent outreach programs his team established across the country.
Dr. Shankar Rai and Pitam have known each other for decades. “[Dr. Rai] showed me compassion and helped me when I had nothing. That changed everything, not just on my outside, but inside.”
Dr. Rai fixed Pitam’s cleft through surgery, but the impact ran much deeper. Pitam realized his worth, just as he always was. That realization prompted him to do something he had always wanted to do–learn Taekwondo and reclaim his inner power. As they say, “good attracts good”, and eventually Pitam became a black belt, got married, and started a family as he had always dreamed.
Pitam’s experience also taught him something else–that giving back to others can be the greatest gift of all. Pitam decided that he wanted to give the gift of compassion, self-confidence, inner peace and power to people who felt the hopelessness that he once felt.
“If you have a heart, and love for people, you can do anything. I wanted to help people like Dr. Rai helped me.”
For the past 15 years Pitam has given free self-defense classes to women and children with low-incomes in his community, impacting almost 5,000 people. He is well known in Pokhara for his acts of service, and inspires others around him to also pay-it-forward.
If you ever find yourself in Pokhara, and are looking for a lake tour guide, be sure to ask for Pitam. His story is a reminder to us all of the power of love and service over hopelessness. When we love ourselves and show others they deserve love too, the ripple effect can move mountains.
At ReSurge, don’t have a fly-in and fly-out approach to humanitarian work because patients like Pitam deserve to have long-term access to surgical care right in their communities. That’s why we train and support local surgical teams like Dr. Rai’s. Make a donation to support patients like Pitam and surgeons like Dr. Rai here.