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Student Strives to Improve Quality of Life in Nepal, Starting with Her Own

A public health student went to Nepal to make a change; she didn’t know her own heart would be first on the list.

Leilani Harmuth standing in front of Nepali Buddhist temple

Leilani Harmuth (PH ’24) is an agent for positive change in the world. Inspired by her grandparents, all four of whom are immigrants from developing nations, Harmuth is committed to lifting and serving others worldwide.

She changed her major from nursing to public health because she believes that with the right work ethic and the right team of committed individuals, she can have an impact far more reaching than one patient at a time

While Harmuth’s grandparents are from the Philippines, Estonia, and Russia, Harmuth joined the study abroad in Nepal because she was impressed that former students got right to work, shoulder to shoulder with the locals, to improve access and quality of healthcare services. Harmuth didn’t want a vacation; she wanted to change the world.

Harmuth’s work centered on improving maternal health outcomes in the impoverished mountain villages surrounding their base in Dolakha, a nearly six-hour drive east from Kathmandu through 112 miles of winding mountain roads. She quickly discovered that barriers to healthcare access were limiting health progress for peri- and post-natal women, a population she is passionate about serving.

Harmuth didn't
want a vacation;
she wanted to
change the world.

“Women’s access to healthcare was quite limited, considering the closest hospital was an hour away by jeep ride, and very few villagers owned a vehicle of transport,” Harmuth explains. “The most exposure to healthcare they receive is from the community health nurses that [try to] visit quarterly.”

Without access to medical care, many mothers give birth at home. “This is very dangerous considering birth complications are common,” Harmuth says.

Healthcare Access Is Possible—with the Right Team

Improved access to healthcare for women in rural Nepal may have felt unattainable to some, but that’s not how Leilani felt about it. “[My experience in Nepal] taught me that removing barriers to access the healthcare is difficult but doable through policy change, a drive and motivation of a workforce, collective teamwork, and perseverance, even if it seems that there is no way you can ‘change the system,’” she says.

Harmuth attests that sometimes solutions to problems are only as far away as our compassion for others: “I learned that to remove barriers, we have to first look outside of ourselves and see others as our fellow men—as equals—because first, one must care in a deep, humane way about the challenges these individuals face.” Harmuth’s Christlike compassion for others is the hallmark of her development in public health.

Leilani Harmuth with child, Nepal
Photo by Photo by Leilani Harmuth

Pulling from Poverty with Healthcare Access

Harmuth’s intentions are not just to lower maternal mortality rates but to improve quality of life and contribute to lifting her new friends from poverty. “I think that being a healthy individual makes one more likely or more equipped to be productive in their work and educational pursuits,” she says. “By providing access to healthcare, people can maintain good health, attend school or work regularly, and contribute actively to their communities.” According to Harmuth, access to quality healthcare is the beginning of “preserving their financial stability and reducing the risk of falling into poverty.”

After conducting surveys and gaining an understanding of the challenges the rural villagers faced, Harmuth and her team used their findings to recommend needed changes to the hospital board. The outcomes remain ongoing. BYU public health students anticipate supporting maternal/child health measures in Nepal in the future, pending funding.

Leilani and the maternal/child health team in front of the hospital in Dolakha, Nepal.
Photo by Photo by Leilani Harmuth

Learning from Nepali Brothers and Sisters

While Harmuth set out to improve healthcare outcomes in Nepal, she discovered that she was changed by the experience, too. “My experience in Nepal has been instrumental in my growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ,” she says. “It motivated me to move beyond the surface-level concept of ‘serving my fellow men’ and led me into a more profound, out-of-my-comfort-zone encounter with the real challenges of poverty, healthcare neglect, and hardships faced by the Nepali mountain population.” Leilani’s changed heart and ongoing desires to lift others in developing nations continue to have a ripple effect. She now works with a non-profit organization promoting healthcare measures in Mali, Africa.

Harmuth’s experience has given her a desire to build a covenant community with all of God’s children around her. “I feel that discipleship to Jesus Christ means connecting with the people around us—meaning building and fostering bridges of connection so that all of us may feel God's love.”

Going forward, Leilani knows her time in Nepal will contribute to shaping her future and many others. “Being in Nepal has fueled a passion in me to go out and find ‘the one’ in my community by helping them access the necessary resources available so that they can lead a healthy, and happy life,” she shares. “I hope to do this in my future public health career and continue it in my lifelong service to God's work.”

After graduation and some work experience, Harmuth plans to get her MBA and open her own non-profit organization.