A Nepali Docs Tragic Death in the US

By Deepak Adhikari and Jerome L. Sherman
in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette This story originally appeared in the PG

In this mountainous country bordered by India and China, doctors are considered to be godlike.

That makes the fall of Dr. Shiva Lal Acharya, who left a farming village to attend Nepal’s most prestigious medical school and then moved to Chicago for a residency program, even more shocking for his friends and family.

On Dec. 13, Dr. Acharya died after hanging himself in the Allegheny County Jail. He had been in custody since September, when he was charged with hitting and killing a motorcyclist on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and then running from the scene of the crash.

“I rued his wrong decision-making,” said Dr. Ranjan Sapkota, a friend and classmate of Dr. Acharya who lives in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. “As a doctor, he should have guarded the dead body.”

Both in Nepal and in the U.S., those who knew the 33-year-old Dr. Acharya described him as a brilliant student who came from humble roots to excel in his studies and his career.

But his path was filled with obstacles: bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse and a failed marriage.

“His message was that he had to struggle at every step in his life,” said James Joshi, an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, who visited Dr. Acharya at the jail.

Dr. Acharya grew up in the village of Padampur, a dusty backwater in Nepal’s southern plains, about a five-hour drive from Kathmandu. His family farmed rice, corn and other vegetables and lived in a cramped house with a tin roof.

In primary school, Dr. Acharya finished fourth in his class. In hopes of spurring him to greater success, his older brother, Krishna Acharya, promised to buy him a wristwatch if he could get top grades in secondary school.

The young Dr. Acharya accepted the challenge. He would study for hours at time, often putting a stone under his mattress to keep himself from falling asleep, his brother said.

“Since then, he was never second in his class,” Krishna Acharya said.

In 1991, Dr. Acharya headed to Kathmandu for a science program, but a bout of jaundice forced him to return home during the first semester.

He enrolled in a college near his village, and his teachers later encouraged him to take the entrance exam for Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital. Over a two-week period, he studied non-stop, eating only milk and bread, his brother said.

Dr. Acharya received a scholarship to attend the medical program, which accepts just 50 students a year. He moved back to the capital in 1996.

“He was hardworking, a better student than me,” said Dr. Sapkota, who comes from the same region of Nepal. “He was very friendly and amicable.”

But Dr. Acharya would turn combative when he drank too much alcohol, often fighting with friends after small disagreements.

Heavy drinking was a normal part of life for students who were away from home for the first time and were living in hostels, with two or three people sharing a single room.

Dr. Acharya also experienced a personal tragedy during his medical school years. His closest friend and fellow classmate suffered from a mental illness and committed suicide.

At some point, Dr. Acharya started experiencing his own problems with bipolar disorder and depression, illnesses that ran in the family, according to Mukesh Singh, president of the Association of Nepalese in Midwest America, who has been in touch with the doctor’s relatives.

Yet Dr. Acharya seemed to overcome his troubles. He scored high grades on his medical school exams, and he became involved with research projects, including one on smoking habits in Nepal.

And he focused on going to the U.S. to continue his studies, a favorite destination for many new Nepalese doctors from his medical school.

Dr. Acharya made his journey in 2005 and lived in New York for a while, but he struggled to get a spot in a residency program at an American hospital, Dr. Sapkota said.

In 2007, his prospects seemed to brighten. He returned to Nepal for an arranged marriage with 31-year-old Sumitra Gautam Sharma, who was also studying to be a doctor. The couple married within two weeks of their meeting, said Dr. Acharya’s nephew, Ramesh Lamichhane, who lives in Harrisburg.

Dr. Acharya then moved with his new wife to Chicago, where, in June of last year, he started a three-year residency in internal medicine at Saint Joseph Hospital.

He and his wife quickly had problems, Mr. Lamichhane said. She left within a few months and went back to Nepal, even though she was pregnant. Dr. Acharya would never see their son.

“He was totally depressed without her, and he was wondering about the baby,” Mr. Lamichhane said.

Dr. Acharya tried repeatedly to get his wife to come back. He traveled to Nepal to try to convince her. She refused.

At the hospital in Chicago, Dr. Acharya’s supervisor told him to seek support for his struggles with depression. A year into his residency, he began looking for other jobs.

On Sept. 4, Dr. Acharya was driving in a black BMW on an Ohio highway, headed to Easton, Northampton County, for an interview at another hospital, when police tried to pull him over for speeding.

A few days before, he had been stopped and arrested on drunken driving charges, and he feared a new arrest would prevent him from making the interview, he later told police and friends. So he tried to get away, hitting speeds of up to 130 miles per hour as he sped down the highway, according to police.

A Pennsylvania state police cruiser was waiting for Dr. Acharya when he crossed the Ohio border, but he still didn’t stop.

About 33 miles east of the border, near Warrendale on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Dr. Acharya lost control of his car. He slammed on the breaks and hit a motorcycle hauling a small trailer.

Keith Brown, a Wisconsin man who was driving the motorcycle, was killed in the collision. The married father of one son had been on his way to visit a sister in Virginia.

According to testimony from his preliminary hearing, Dr. Acharya got out of the car before it had stopped moving and was dragged several feet along the berm. He told police he checked Mr. Brown and determined the man’s injuries weren’t fatal — but he later told friends that he didn’t know he had hit anyone.

“I think he was totally scared,” Mr. Joshi said.

Dr. Acharya ran, barefoot, into the woods. Police spent four hours searching for him, using infrared scanners, bloodhounds and a helicopter.

Dr. Acharya emerged from the woods about two miles east of the crash scene and surrendered to the first trooper he saw. He had injuries to his leg and a laceration above one of his eyes.

On Sept. 26, a judge ordered the doctor to stand trial on a range of charges, including involuntary manslaughter, homicide by vehicle, third-degree murder and fleeing and eluding police.

From Chicago to Pittsburgh, Nepalese immigrants banded together to raise money for Dr. Acharya’s legal defense, even though many were appalled by what had happened.

“There were a lot of people who felt what he had done was wrong, based on news accounts,” said Sharda Thapa, the founder of the Chicagoland Nepali Pariwar, a social and charitable organization. “All we were trying to do was make sure he got a fair trial.”

Mr. Joshi and Sushil Acharya, an assistant professor of software engineering at Robert Morris University, who is not related to Dr. Acharya, went to visit the doctor at the county jail on behalf of Pittsburgh’s small Nepalese community. His nephew, Mr. Lamichhane, also visited and kept in touch with relatives in Nepal.

Dr. Acharya told them that he wanted to hire a private lawyer. They agreed to help him.

About a week before his death, he met with defense attorney Sid Sokolsky, who was alarmed by his client’s mental health problems.

“I got the sense he thought everyone was against him,” Mr. Sokolsky said. He appeared “very paranoid.”

The attorney said he had planned to ask for a competency hearing for Dr. Acharya.

Mr. Lamichhane said his uncle was taking medication while he was in the jail and was housed in a special needs pod, where corrections officers check on each prisoner every 15 to 30 minutes.

Dr. Acharya was found hanged from a bedsheet in his cell, Warden Ramon Rustin said.

His body was cremated on Dec. 19. Sushil Acharya and Mr. Lamichhane are making arrangements to send his remains back to Nepal, so his family can spread the ashes in a river near his home, in keeping with Hindu traditions.

In addition to his brother, he is survived by his parents, two sisters and a son, Khem Acharya, who was born in June.

“He loved me so much,” said his father, Nanda Lal Acharya, 67.

His mother, 63-year-old Kharika Acharya, rarely speaks or eats since Dr. Acharya’s death, Mr. Lamichhane said.

She had asked him not to leave Nepal.

Deepak Adhikari, a journalist with Kantipur daily and UWB blogger based in Kathmandu, worked at the Post-Gazette as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow this summer. He can be reached at deepak.adhikari@gmail.com. Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183. Dipendra Baduwal also contributed reporting from Chitwan, Nepal.

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20 responses to “A Nepali Docs Tragic Death in the US

  1. What a tragic ending for a bright Nepali doctor!!! My profound sympathy for the family of Dr. Acharya. The bottom line is what has to happen will happen in our lives. It is called fate. It is totally beyond our control.

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  2. It’s a tragic incident.

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  3. Fate had nothing to do with this. The doctor made a deliberate choice to leave the scene of the accident and run. He had a history of alcohol abuse and bipolar disorder, which is a highly treatable mental illness, as Dr. Acharya surely knew. He violated the Hippocratic Oath that all new doctors take, and, as sad as it is that he committed suicide, the fact remains, one man died because of his actions. One American family lost a father due to a needless accident, the other lost a son, an up and coming doctor, due to his carelessness driving and to his not getting help for his mental health issues, as the hospital in Chicago had requested him to do. Its a tragedy all around.

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  4. Here is the Hippocratic Oath that new doctors take:

    swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

    I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

    I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

    I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

    I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

    I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

    I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

    I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

    I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

    If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

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  5. Prakash Sharma

    He committed mistakes one after another giving no room for people around him, his family, his well wishers, to do something for him. When the news flashed, he was instant vilion. I dont know what played in his mind when he took those decisions. Being doctor he was trained to make better choices.

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  6. rabi,veryloud@live.com,dallas, texas

    Death or more strictly suicide doesn’t cover up the crimes he had perfomed.

    1. Driving without a valid license in the state.
    2. Exceeding the speed limit.
    3. Manslaughter, ie, killing the motorcyclist.
    4. Fleeing away from the police from the crime site.

    I just forgot the three other crimes he has performed. It can be googled and easily found out.

    What I intend to say is we have certainly lost an intellect from our country. But yet, because of the craziness, he committed two homicides. We would never want a fellow Nepali to be such. Lets live to this fact.

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  7. rabi,veryloud@live.com,dallas, texas

    And yeah, all circumstances leading to his death are tragic. In fact, he should not have died.

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  8. Sad !
    One important thing to learn is being good intellectual is one thing
    and being a GOOD HUMAN is another. Just like BABURAM
    is goog intellectual, but ……………………………………………………………….

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  9. Thisis what happens when you aspire too much to be in US of A.

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  10. xyz, the chance of being in a crash is most likely far higher in Nepal than in the USA (and I’m talking per percentage of the population, as clearly the USA has 300 million versus 30 million people), because our driving laws are actually enforced, not ignored. In your society, people simply don’t bother to obey the laws and get off with impunity. The roads are utter chaos, and the driving situation is just a reflection of the way your government is running these days. Utter chaos, no respect for the rule of law, corruption abounds, pay off the police or the judge to get off with no impunity. This doctor violated the law, and was rightfully arrested and would have gone to trial and been punished for the crime he committed, had he not committed suicide. We don’t need drivers like that out on our roads and highways in the USA or Nepal, be they Nepali, American or from Mars! Think of the recent bus crash in Nepal where so many young children died. This could have been prevented, so many young lives needlessly lost, had rules been followed, safe driving conditions, proper maintenance of the bus. But all you have to do in Nepal is pay someone off and it can be overlooked. That’s no way to run your roads, let alone to run a country.

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  11. Acharya doctor sahib may have come from humble roots & made something of himself. What a tragedy. He may have been a “subha tara,” but his personal demons consumed him. His bout with alcoholism. marital problems & psychological issues paint a different picture. In this tragic incident, he not only took his own life but also that a motorcylist. There is a victim in this horrific story,ie, not only the doctor sahib but also an American motorcyclist & his family. That is why there is the rule of law. Everyone has to drive within the speed limits, not drink while driving or pull over when a police approaches you. Otherwise, there would be chaos.

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  12. This case is a perfect example of how a great career can go to dogs if not managed well. To my mind, Dr Acharya could not manage the stress. I wish he received some professional help. Hard Fact is Dr Acharya is no more..I pary to almighty that his soul rest in peace and also pray for strength to his family to bear this irreparable loss.

    Well, what is destined will happen. However, as an intelligent person one should learn from such incidence. There is nothing called bad situation..it’s always how we react to a particular situation that leads us to a good or bad incidence. This essentially means we are responsible for whatever happens to us. It’s our essential duty that we take full responsibility of our action and react positively to each situation that we face in life. This might sound very theoretical but believe you me this is very practical. We have to consciously keep trying it till it becomes our habit..till it become a reflex action. Yoga & Meditation help attain this in life. We must spend atleast half an hour everyday for Yoga/meditation or any other such things which help de-stress us.

    NepalUday

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  13. Nepali Kancha

    Why are even talking about him. Should we pronounce him as Sahid….as we are doing with all murders in Nepal. Has inhumanity taken over the blog. My prayers goes to the motorcylist Keith Brown. Dr Acharya probably knew where his life was heading with his vices. But the poor Mr. Brown. Blog should have written about him than Dr. Acharya.

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  14. heartfelt condolences. In developping countries psychiatry is not open to all but even then these diseases are bitter karma. The west if full of so called homeless who are really scizofrenics and so on. They probably auto medicate. This case particularly touches me because he had a compassionate drive to become a doctor yet he was ill himself.
    Typically people who have no medical background go in terms of good and bad this is not the issue here. Sickness or illness is not bad it must be treated.

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  15. All the things he did before were a cry for help yet the people, society is blind

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  16. I agree with -> rabi,veryloud@live.com

    certainly he was a intellect, but we should also not forget the crimes that he has committed.

    but what has happened, has happened. he should have gotten proper treatment (psychological).

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  17. I do have lot of sympathy for the Wisconsin man. But none for this psychopath.

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  18. its easy for people to demonize this man. But the fact of the matter is that if he was suffering from mental health issues, then this should be recognized. Randy, bipolar disorder does not make you a psycopath. The fact of the matter is that people with such issues are almost always reluctant to get help.

    Look I’m not saying that he is a victim 100%. He should’ve definitely gone to jail, or at least been institutionalized for a long time, but to say that its not a tragedy for him or his family is also wrong. For us Nepalis it is hard to see people with such potential ruin it like this.

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  19. I feel sorry for him n his family..a tragic story which could have been easily prevented…

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  20. Dr. Jung B. Thapa

    Maybe if he stayed in back in Nepal and served the people here he would not have died so tragically. Certainly the unfortunate motorcyclist would have been spared. I genuinely feel sorry for him. With all the odds stacked against him he stood no chance. He had a serious psychiatric problem, was a struggling medical professional from an easy going country trying to compete in an advanced society.

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