Dr. Helen I. Huston is an inspiring Canadian who has received international recognition as a medical missionary. Her story is one of fortitude and faith. Dr. Huston devoted 39 years of her life to the people of India and Nepal. For 32 of those years, she served with the United Mission to Nepal (U.M.N.), an interdenominational organization supported by 36 mission boards from 16 countries.
Born in Innisfail, Alberta and growing up in many other small Alberta towns, Dr. Huston graduated from the University of Alberta in Medicine in 1951. She interned a year at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton and another at Vancouver General Hospital before leaving for India in 1953. She served there with the United Church of Canada for five and a half years.
Soon after Hindi language school, Dr. Helen, as she was called, was loaned to work for three months with the U.M.N. in Kathmandu. Dr. Bethel Fleming, one of the founding members of the United Mission to Nepal and the first Western physician allowed to work in Nepal, had opened a 15-bed hospital for women and children in half of an empty cholera hospital. Soon after, Dr. Fleming was called home urgently to the U.S.A. and the young and inexperienced Dr. Helen was asked to fill in. At that time, there was no road connecting India and Kathmandu and it was very difficult to get supplies.
Amidst the lush, tropical growth and spectacular beauty of the land, Dr. Helen worked under difficult circumstances. During the 50s, Nepal was just beginning to open its borders to the rest of the world, ending several centuries of isolation. While there, she felt an intense desire to return in the future.
To her great joy, the United Church became a member of the U.M.N. and she was sent to work under them in Nepal in 1960. Apart from home leave, she spent most of the next 32 years in the village of Amp Pipal, about 140 km northwest of Kathmandu in the sprawling, mountainous Gorkha District. A U.M.N. community service project had been started in Amp Pipal to work in agriculture, education and health.
Pioneering as the first and only doctor for a number of years, she performed emergency operations and all manner of medical services under the most primitive conditions.
In 1965, work began on Amp Pipal hospital. Building the hospital from mud and stone on two terraces of the slopes of the Lig Lig Mountain was a formidable challenge. The move to the partially completed hospital was made in March of 1969. The majority of the donations to build and equip this hospital came from Alberta, some from the rest of Canada and some from other countries.
Dr. Helen’s work in Nepal was sponsored in U.M.N. and Canada by the international, interdenominational mission known as “Interserve”. Her mission and outreach to the needs of the less fortunate people of the world is an inspiration to Albertans. Encouraged by her example, a number of others have gone abroad to share their talents and their faith in “the two-thirds” world.
In 1980, Dr. Huston was given an honorary life membership in the Nepal Medical Association at Kathmandu, never before granted to a doctor from a foreign country. Awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award by the University of Alberta Medical Alumni Association in 1978, she was recently inducted to their Alumni Wall of Recognition. The University of Alberta also honoured her in 1984 with an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Dr. Huston is the first recipient of Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation Award for Humanitarian Services, presented by Sir Edmund in Toronto in 1991. In 1994, she was named to the Order of Canada.
She retired in October 1992, and returned to Alberta in February 1993. Her story is told in the book, A Heart for Nepal: The Dr. Helen Huston Story, written by Calgary writer, Dr. Gerald Hankins, a classmate of Helen’s, fellow medical missionary and member of the Alberta Order of Excellence.