Continuing from the previous medical mission in March, the team returned to Bandaragama District Hospital once again to conduct a two-and-a-half-day free clinic. As the volunteers were quite familiar with the environment, the entire preparation was exceptionally smooth, be it the pulling of the cords, assembling the machines and setting up of the operating theatres and clinics. Even when the floor, walls and windows had to be cleaned with disinfectants, everyone did it with much laughter.
A warm reunion with former patient
After a seven month break, the tranquil town of Bandaragama saw Tzu Chi’s uniform of blue and white again. The residents were elated after having waited for such a long time. On learning that the team was back, Mdm Alahakoon, an 82-year-old lady who received cataract surgery during the March free clinic, specially set off early in the morning on the first day (14 October) to pay the volunteers a visit.
She is happy with her vision improvement after the surgery and said, “I have been waiting for the opportunity to express my gratitude, so I specially came down today to thank all of you.” The enthusiastic lady hugged the volunteers, and even sang a long stanza of praise to pray for everyone. Many were touched by her kind gesture.
Medical mission fills the gap
Even though Sri Lanka has a fairly good healthcare network providing free consultations to its people, the medical infrastructure is comparatively backward. Patients, especially those who require surgeries, often have to wait a few years before the treatment opportunity appears.
According to Dr Issac Rathnaike, deputy regional health director of Kalutara district, Kalutara has two base hospitals and 22 district hospitals of a similar scale as the Bandaragama District Hospital. The hospital is responsible for looking after the health of its surrounding 150,000 residents but only limited services such as emergency services, general medicine and dentistry are available.
“Patients with more severe illnesses have to be transported to larger hospitals and many hospital healthcare services are not free of charge. If burns patients or those needing tumour resection require further surgeries, they need to join the long queues at the main government hospitals and some have been waiting vainly for years," said Dr Rathnaike.
"The poor are neither able to afford the expensive treatments at private hospitals so it is really wonderful that Tzu Chi is holding free clinics to provide timely surgeries for these patients,” he added.
Kapila Jayawandana, who came from Colombo, had a huge tumour on his right shoulder. Despite his attempts to hide it by wearing loose clothing, the right shoulder of this well-built gentleman still appeared much higher than the other side like a small hill. His unique appearance had been making him feel inferior all this while.
Owing to his fear of surgical risk and the long waiting list, he faced problems arranging for his surgery. As the years dragged by, his tumour gradually enlarged.
“This tumour had already been around for nearly six years. It started off small but I do not know why it grew bigger.
Although there is no pain and it did not inconvenience me very much, it is still very disturbing and unsightly to carry this tumour on my shoulder,” said Kapila.
After a health check, Dr Vincent Ng from Singapore operated on the Sri Lankan. Given the size of the tumour, the operation took much time and effort. The 3kg lump was finally removed after nearly two hours. Kapila’s wife and son, who were by his side all this while, heaved a sigh of relief after he was wheeled out of the operating theatre.
“The operation was very successful. I did not feel any pain and was quite at ease. The medical staffs are all very compassionate. I am very grateful for the chance to be operated by these doctors from Singapore,” Kapila commented with much happiness.
Already a Tzu Chi volunteer himself, Kapila vowed to continue contributing and help others as Tzu Chi had helped him.
The value of empathy
Amidst the endless stream of patients seeking treatment, Sandya Priyadarshani, who was blind in both eyes, made her way to the free clinic alone hoping to regain her eyesight.
During a serious family conflict 12 years ago, Sandya’s eyes were injured by the hydrochloric acid that her drunk husband poured on her. Her eyes were eventually diagnosed to be permanently blind even though she relentlessly looked for a cure and went through 20 operations.
Despite her misery, Sandya’s strong character saw her grabbing any opportunity that can help her regain her sight. Her heart was once again lit up with hope when she learnt about the free clinic.
However, after a thorough examination by the ophthalmologist, it was concluded that it was impossible for her to regain her eyesight. She subsequently went to the surgical clinic for consultation regarding hernia but was told that she was not suitable for operation in view of her diabetes and hypertension conditions. When she later arrived at the dental clinic – as she had problems with her teeth – she was denied fillings as the surface of her teeth was too flat.
One will think Sandya would be depressed after spending an entire morning at the free clinic finding herself unable to receive any medical treatment. However, the Sri Lankan maintained a radiant disposition and was very appreciative of the volunteers' concern. She said they were worried that she might suffer a fall as her eyesight was compromised, and constantly supported and watched over her. Thus, she did not feel lonely but rather a sense of warmth as she "had already received the best treatment for (her) soul".
Driving medical humanities and inspiring local efforts
Tzu Chi’s care and concern for Sri Lanka has remained strong for the past six years since the 2004 tsunami hit South Asia and the footsteps of its charity work had never ceased since. Although the post-tsunami rebuilding efforts had been completed, Brother David Liu, who superintends Tzu Chi missions in Singapore, decided to continue with the promoting of Tzu Chi missions in Sri Lanka.
“Sri Lanka has a backward medical infrastructure and is much in need of medical care. There are many opportunities to help the needy here but not many chances to inspire the locals to volunteer with us. If we rely on just conducting monthly charity visits, there is a limit to the number of volunteers we can enlist. So we need to think of another way,” explained Brother Liu.
The Foundation's continuing efforts of large scale medical mission did catch the eyes of the local government and people and many came to realize that an organization named Tzu Chi had remained locally even after the post-tsunami reconstruction.
“Looking at how bustling the hospital is, the residents will be curious as to what activity is going on and will gradually progress from looking to helping out,” Brother Liu remarked.
In March 2011, when Tzu Chi first came to Bandaragama District Hospital for medical mission, Dr Amal Harsha De Silva, the Western Provincial Director of Health Services, was rather ambivalent about the commitment of the charity foundation. After inspecting the entire premise of the free clinic, he dropped his initial doubt and worry and even brought his family along on the second day to witness the scene. In September this year, Dr De Silva and company flew to Taiwan to attend the Tzu Chi International Medical Association’s (TIMA) annual conference where they had a deeper understanding of Tzu Chi’s principles and were inspired to help drive Tzu Chi’s medical humanities in Sri Lanka.
The provincial health director said, “I am very thankful for all that your volunteers have done because they inspire our people to harbour a love for charity and giving. Our medical professionals can also learn to have more compassion for patients through this exposure.”
The free clinic ended on the afternoon of 16 October and saw 2726 patients benefitted from the general surgery, ophthalmology (cataract), dentistry and internal medicine services. Noticing that many locals suffer from myopia and astigmatism but are unable to afford spectacles, the Foundation specially added optometry in this year’s free clinic which helped 503 residents obtain spectacles.
Looking back at the five free clinics that Tzu Chi held in Sri Lanka over the past three years, tens of thousands of residents have received consultations and treatments. The location of the free clinic also gradually shifted from the central province of Sabaragamuwa, southwards towards capital Colombo.
The convenience of transportation had helped increase the number of local volunteers tremendously with almost 200 locals partaking in the two-and-a-half-day free clinic this time. Regardless of their nationality, volunteers from Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka worked hand-in-hand and provided the best possible professional healthcare and genuine concern to the poor local patients.