The good doctor
My first home in Kathmandu was a glass A-frame house nestled in a lychee and mango orchard, sheltered by a magnificent old fig tree in Bansbari. It was rented from Prem who lived with his young family in the same garden, rice fields stretching beyond the back wall with distant views of the northern hills. It was tiny, with seating on floor cushions and the bedroom a mattress on the mezzanine accessed by a precarious circular staircase, but that did not preclude large parties on the lawn and jolly meals around a polished table in the cramped dining alcove.
As Dr David Shlim recounts in his memoir, A Gentle Rain of Compassion, it was here at dinner one evening that his life was profoundly changed by meeting Jane, a leggy blond Canadian who worked for us at Tiger Tops. This chance encounter led to a series of events (spoiler alert) that broke his pattern of ricocheting romances and obsessive despair which, in the mysterious way of this magical Valley, eventually catapulted him out of his misery and onto the healing path of spiritual awakening.
That evening would lead to the transformation of David’s life through his discovery of Tibetan Buddhism, personal tuition by reincarnate lamas and an enduring friendship with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, whom he met when offering free healthcare in his Boudha monastery. But this journey towards enlightenment, compellingly written with David’s signature self-deprecating humour, encapsulates much, much more. In the words of Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air: ‘Dr. Shlim’s story is candid, wise, fascinating, funny, tragic, astonishing, hopeful, and wonderfully entertaining.’
Today David is world renowned as a specialist physician in travel medicine and has pioneered the bringing together of Buddhist philosophical practice with modern medical theory. Based in Jackson Hole Wyoming, he has lectured around the world on travel medicine topics and spends his time coaching caregivers to apply compassion in their daily interactions with patients, teaching Buddhism, and directing the Medicine and Compassion Project (www.davidshlim.com/medicine-
Collaboration with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and others resulted in the first-ever book that provided authentic Tibetan Buddhist insights into altruism and compassion for Western medical professionals, Medicine and Compassion, published in 2004. Monk philanthropist Matthieu Ricard (who David’s son is named after) writes: ‘Uniting his medical vocation with the essence of Buddhism … led to his teaching physicians around the world on how to bring back compassion at the heart of their profession and day to day activities.’
Dr Shlim, as he is known locally, was a popular guest and a well-known fixture in 1980s’ Kathmandu. Adept at tolerating local conditions, both personal and medical, he first worked in Nepal in 1979 as the volunteer doctor posted in the Pheriche aid post high in the eastern Himalaya, lured away from his lacklustre life and flailing medical career in the US by the peerless mountain doctor and climber, Dr Peter Hackett.
Returning as director of CIWEC, Nepal’s first international clinic with which he remains associated, Dr Shlim was a lifesaver, literally. Prior to CIWEC’s establishment in 1982 with Canadian assistance, we all relied on the Shanta Bhawan Hospital in a former Rana palace, run by dedicated and hard-working missionaries. I would regularly invite David down to Chitwan and Bardia for the reassurance of his gentle medical expertise when we had celebrity guests such as Henry Kissinger, Ringo Starr and Robert Redford in our care.
In a unique position to study medical conditions afflicting travellers, including diarrhoea, tropical diseases and travellers’ depression, the research that David led during his 15 years in Nepal made CIWEC the most famous travel clinic in the world. In addition, he served ten years as medical director of the Himalayan Rescue Association and became president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, an organization with 4,000 members in 100 countries. In 1998 Dr David Shlim was recognised by the Prime Minister of Nepal for his lifetime contribution to Himalayan rescue and mountain medicine.
It was to CIWEC that Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau were brought after the epic 1996 high altitude flight by Madhan KC above the Everest icefall, at that time the highest ever helicopter rescue. I coordinated the rescue operation, manning the phones in Kathmandu with Rob Hall’s team at basecamp, the American Embassy and Adventure Consultants in Christchurch. Having been left for dead above Camp II after the storm, we held the phone to Beck Weathers’ ear as he called his wife from David’s consulting room to tell her that he was still alive, tears streaming down his face, his frostbitten nose treated and both hands bandaged by Dr Shlim.
David is a good storyteller as this page-turner attests, and inevitably was at the centre of expat life in those early self-reliant days, with all their dramas, disasters, accidents and adventures. A sober physician by day, David let off steam as a rock and roll singer by night. The Fear of Heights band had us dancing late into the night, a precursor for another twist in his eclectic career as tour doctor travelling the world with the Rolling Stones for three years - David had originally met Mick Jagger and his family in 1990 at my house in Kathmandu.
As Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche writes in the Foreword: ‘Dr. Shlim’s life was filled with many challenges and many successes, both medically and personally. He tells these stories very well.’ Particularly
But this unputdownable book is about more than medical sagas and spiritual exploration, on which David clearly left his mark in Nepal and vise versa, gripping as they are. The narrative gallops along, featuring romances, travel and personal trauma, sweeping us through the delights and deprivations of Kathmandu life in the 1980s and the stark reality of Sherpa living in the high Khumbu with little health support. We follow David through the unsatisfactory dead ends of his early years in the US, settling into the beguiling rhythms of life in Nepal, then returning to the American Tetons having found the other Jane - another beautiful Canadian lady chanced upon in Kathmandu with whom he has shared his extraordinary life and two children.
Recently released in the US and Kathmandu, it is fitting that A Gentle Rain of Compassion was selected as the best autobiography/memoir by International Book Awards 2022 - a great boost for Dr Shlim, and nice recognition for Nepal as the most rewarding of adventure and spiritual destinations.
A Gentle Rain of Compassion
by Dr David R Shlim
Di Angelo Publications USA 2022
Distributed in Nepal by Vajra Books