Since August 2009, TIMA members from Singapore and Malaysia have conducted four large scale free clinics in Sri Lanka.
Two weeks before the fifth free clinic on 14 Oct, seven optometrists and 30 volunteers from Singapore together with about 40 Sri Lankan volunteers conducted eye checks, cataract examinations and body screening so that eligible Sri Lankans could come for treatment during the free clinic.
A "small clinic" in preparation for a larger one
The pre-screening benefited 762 people, including 503 eye check cases, 197 cataract cases, 40 tumour cases and 22 hernia cases. Team Leader of the free clinic Brother Kenny Khoo likened the pre-screening to a "small free clinic" as many Sri Lankans had come to seek medical attention.
Seven optometrists were participating in the free clinic for the first time. It was under the warm invitation of Singapore Polytechnic’s senior lecturer, Yeo Chwee Hong that they took leave from their work to volunteer with the free clinic.
“I wasn’t very active in Tzu Chi activities when I was a PhD student. It was only when I began to teach in Singapore Polytechnic that I became more proactive in volunteering.” Although she was tired by the pre-screening work, Ms Yeo had already begun planning for the upcoming free clinic, pledging to bring more doctors and equipment so as to better serve the locals.
After the pre-screening, the optometry team concluded that they will need to prepare a total of 504 pairs of spectacles for the Sri Lankans (a small number of them needed two sets of spectacles). 13 pairs of spectacles of assorted degree were prescribed on the spot as the team had brought spare ones.
Nilmini Kandhilatha, a housewife, was so elated to be among the beneficiaries that she pledged to volunteer with Tzu Chi when she has time.
Causes of eye diseases
Although Sri Lanka has a literacy rate of about 90%, the poor have little exposure to televisions and computers. So what are the insidious causes of eye diseases such as blindness, myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism?
A translator for the optometry team named Alakawage Kanthie Daya Alwis explained that the primary cause is nutrient deficient. Most Sri Lankan mothers could only breastfeed their baby for the first four months as they have to work to supplement the income of their families. A lot of children suffered from malnutrition as a result.
Alwis added that fortunately there are two types of local plants, namely Sessile joyweed and Centella asiatica, which aids in alleviating eye diseases. The two plants are also ingredients in their curry cuisine and are sometimes mixed with coconut and curry leaves to make the local salad known as Mukunuwenna Mallum.
From the interaction with the Sri Lankans, the TIMA members discovered that the locals lack eye care knowledge in general and many regard the wearing of spectacles as a handicap. Some even mistook the spectacles without lens as complete spectacles as they are rarely seen in Sri Lanka.
In capital Colombo, the cheapest cost of a typical spectacle is 3000 rupee (about S$38). The standard cost is around 4500 rupee (about S$56). Because optical services are rare in Sri Lanka, many locals had come for the checkup despite having normal eyesight. Some even enquired about purchasing spectacles for their family members.
Police officer Thusith Henadeera estimated that the spectacles provided by Tzu Chi cost around 6000 rupee (about S$75) each in Sri Lanka. The sum is no doubt too much for a typical local to afford, he added.
Donning a thick spectacle makes Mdm W. Jasi Wong stood out from the crowd. The 78-year-old senior was diagnosed with more than 1200 degrees for her myopia and astigmatism of 500 degrees. Since an operation in Colombo hospital years ago, there is still not much improvement in her eyesight. The reason of her serious eyes damage inflicted years ago was not known even today.
“It could be because of rubber latex splashing into my eyes when I was tapping rubber trees,” explained Mdm Jasi Wong. After the examination, the senior felt that her eyesight is a lot better. She was also gratified for the dedicated services from the TIMA members, which she felt are better than the other treatments she received.
85-year-old K.K.J. Kulathilaka was at the free clinic to get the prescription of his 11th spectacle. The excited senior muttered ‘bohoma isthuthi’ (deepest gratitude in the Sri Lankan language) to the volunteers and planned to meet them again during the free clinic. Volunteer Reno Wismanto recalled how the grateful senior clasped his palm and bowed deeply to him before he made his leave.
Everyone’s effort is needed
14-year-old Christian Johash Shehan was supposed to attend the Children’s Day party organized by his class. However, when he heard that a Buddhist organization is holding a free clinic pre-screening on the day of the party, he decided to accompany his mother to volunteer in the service instead.
“I feel that helping others is a more meaningful activity. This is the first time I am volunteering and I am proud of myself!’ Even after an afternoon of volunteering, the teenager who assisted in eye checkups and translation did not showed any sign of fatigue or boredom.
His father Veeran Shehan is the pastor of the House of Prayer located nearby. Pastor Shehan also goes overseas to conduct gospel sessions frequently. He learnt of Tzu Chi in a tea session organized by the Colombo Tzu Chi office on last 28 Aug and felt that Tzu Chi’s spirit of Great Love in helping people regardless of races, religions or nationalities is in line with his principles. Pastor Shehan informed his church friends about the pre-screening when he heard about it. Though his commitment to church duties kept him busy from assisting in the service, the attendance of his wife and nine followers was no doubt a testimonial of his commitment towards the Great Love spirit.
“To share our blessings by helping people are our responsibilities. We are grateful towards Tzu Chi Foundation for helping our country,” said Pastor Shehan.
One of his followers, Nathalie Ubeysiri, is no stranger to volunteering. Being an active helper in the free eye checkups held by her company, she is quite experienced in the procedures. She used her rest day on Saturday to volunteer as a translator for the pre-screening at the cataract division. Her mother, Carmen Ubeysiri, who came along with her, added that as Christians, Sunday is a day for God. The mother-daughter pair were heartened that they could make use of both Friday and Saturday (the days of the pre-screening) to give back to the society by sharing the love of God with the poor. “Furthermore, the volunteers here are very friendly,” said Carmen.
Carmen was also apologetic for being late on Saturday morning for the pre-screening. This is because the first of each month is the day of distribution of food for poor retirees by her church. Her passion for helping the poor and disadvantaged is evident by her active participation in both her church’s and Tzu Chi’s activity. Both Nathalie and Carmen expressed interest in continuing their volunteering services with Tzu Chi in future.
In appreciation to the optometry team who has been working hard since early morning to evening, the volunteers gathered to practice the sign language of the Tzu Chi signature song ‘One Family’, with Sri Lankan volunteers moving the audio equipment from first floor to the checking ward.
Dr Issac Rathnaike, the deputy regional health director of Kalutara district, who happened to be there to express his gratitude towards the optometry team, also joined in the singing.
“I like to thank the TIMA members on the behalf of our Ministry of Health for the excellent services rendered. You all have chipped in 200 percent. From you all, we learnt and experienced the generosity in the name of volunteerism,” conveyed Dr Rathnaike. He pledged to work closer with Tzu Chi in the future and hoped that the Sri Lankan government could organize free clinics on their own to benefit their countrymen.
The day concluded with everyone forming a circle and conveying their love and thanks towards each other via the ‘One family’ song. Translation was not needed this time as everyone's common language was none other than Love and Compassion.