“Gregarious and warm, Real Change Vendor Sharon Sherpa has an effervescent energy that inspires and motivates those around her.” That’s how a Real Change profile of Sherpa started in the summer of 2022. “Sharon’s compassion for others and ability to find joy and humor have transcended multiple international moves, family tragedy and bad luck.”
All those things are still true. But a year later, something else is obvious about her. She has the fierce determination of a survivor.
She described herself as “tough” and “a strong female,” saying that’s partly due to her ethnic heritage. She was born and grew up in Nepal, and, as you might guess from her name, her father is a Sherpa. The community became renowned for working as porters or guides in the Himalayas, which requires exceptional climbing skills and endurance at high altitudes.
Her mother’s family is of Gurkha heritage. Making up several Himalayan ethnic groups, Gurkhas were recruited as elite soldiers after the British Empire colonized the country. They still serve in the British army and are known as some of the most skilled and fierce warriors in the world and are also noted for their professionalism, humor and humility.
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who served as the Chief of Staff of the Indian army, famously said, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.”
Sherpa may not be afraid of dying, but that doesn’t mean she plans to do it any time soon. Last summer’s profile mentioned that she had just received a diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic cancer.
She soon found out the cancer had metastasized to her liver. The first surgeon she consulted told her there was no hope. “No hope. That’s what he said. He told me the cancer was too close to major arteries and that I would die on the operating table.”
She didn’t accept the idea of “no hope,” so she went to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for a second opinion. They referred her to a surgeon at the University of Washington.
“Jonathan G. Sham, MD. I want his name in the paper. He saved my life,” Sherpa said.
She’s proud of the dramatic scars from her surgery. She has also undergone 17 rounds of chemotherapy and, at the time of our interview, had decided she’d like to take a break.
Sherpa said that getting the care she needed took a lot of work, and that’s why homeless and other poor people often avoid seeking the medical help they need. She says she has some messages for them: “Go to hospitals. Get a second opinion. Have hope and faith. Keep busy. Do not dwell on misery. Believe that you can.”
Sherpa grew up in what she called a “good class” family. They spoke English at home. She also is fluent in Nepali and Hindi. She had an excellent education, including a stint in medical school. Her early career included working as a flight attendant for Lumbini Airways and for Skyline Airways, which was run by her father and his business associates. It transported tourists to Mount Everest. Her youngest sister, Sarah, also worked as a flight attendant for another airline and was killed when the plane malfunctioned and crashed. The loss of her sister and her mother, who died in 2014, left her shocked and depressed. She moved to Tokyo and found work as a server at a Radisson hotel.
She learned Japanese in Tokyo — and also the hospitality business. But the relationship she was in went sour. Very sour. One day, when she’d gone into work with a black eye, the general manager of the hotel, John Banter, was talking to her about it when she told him she had a visa for the United States. He immediately wrote her a recommendation for any Radisson hotel in the United States and told her, “Angel, you have wings! Fly!”
So she flew. She had a connection in Seattle, so she came to the city and worked at the front desk of a downtown Seattle hotel. She made a good impression at the front desk, where her vibrant personality, education and upbringing played to her advantage. But she wasn’t allowed to get too impressed with herself.
“When I first got here, I went to see a Sherpa brother who was working as a chef in Wallingford. He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter who you were in Nepal. We all gotta work in America, so put down your crown and go to work.’ And that’s what I did.”
Sherpa moved to Portland in 2017, living and working there happily for three years. Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning, her vital documents were stolen, including her visa and her Social Security card. The visa cannot be replaced in the U.S., only in person in Nepal, so she was unable to get work that required a visa.
Since she couldn’t get work, she was soon living on the streets.
She made her way back to Seattle in 2022 and found out about Real Change from a vendor. When she got her cancer diagnosis, she was living in the WHEEL shelter, although she has since found a place of her own. She’s grateful to several organizations for their help. “I want to thank the WHEEL shelter and Mary’s Place and Solid Ground. They have all helped me.”
Sherpa has an uncertain future, but she faces it with optimism. “My Buddhist name is Dolma. It means ‘Savior.’
“I believe I was chosen so I could guide people who lose hope during a health crisis,” Sherpa said. “I am grateful to all my genuine medical team who thought I was the coolest patient. I thank America and Jesus Christ for believing in this Himalayan Shergurkha woman who didn’t give up on life despite all the nonsense obstacles put in my path.”
Sharon Sherpa is a Real Change vendor. Her badge number for Venmo payments is 14569.
Read more of the Sept. 20-26, 2023 issue.