More than a year ago, 71-year-old Mlani Weerasinghe started to suffer from poor eyesight due to old age. A few months ago, it became so bad that her right eye was almost blind and all she could see was a blur. Though she could still go about her life as usual and could even help look after her four grandchildren for her daughter, her deteriorating eyesight did bring about inconveniences to her and restrained her movement.
Two months ago, upon seeing the free clinic banner hung at the Bandaragama District Hospital that indicated there would be cataract surgeries provided, the villagers quickly spread the news to each other. Mlani’s daughter also rushed to the hospital to register her mother for the surgery.
Two weeks before the free clinic, Mlani went through the medical examination and was confirmed to be fit for the surgery. She was very happy and looking forward to that day.
On 17 Mar, Mlani arrived at the free clinic with her daughter and son-in-law. An afternoon surgery was arranged for her after a medical examination.
While waiting in the queue for her turn, Mlani was all smiles and kept putting her palms together to greet the overseas volunteers who were busy but smiling while discharging their duties.
Sparing a thought for the less fortunate
The makeshift operating room for eye surgeries on the second level of the hospital was originally the office of the hospital superintendent. With seamless teamwork, the utility/logistic team set up a registration counter, an eyesight examination section, an eye examination section, a waiting area, an operating room, a recovery room, etc within the first and second level space. They then installed water and electricity supplies and a new air conditioner. With bright lightings, disinfected walls and floor, surgical equipment and three operating beds in place, a fully equipped and tidy operating room started to take shape.
Dr Goh Swee Heng, the leader of the ophthalmic team, was the surgeon to operate on Mlani. The cataract was removed and an intraocular lens was implanted to restore her eyesight; the entire operation was over in an hour.
On 19 Mar, in the company of her daughter, Mlani arrived at the free clinic as scheduled for a checkup. After the removal of the gauze on her eye, Mlani could see much clearer through an eye mask and could go home with peace of mind. A brimming Mlani couldn’t hide her happiness while she greeted the volunteers she met on her way home with her palms clasped.
“There is a lot of difference between yesterday and today, I can see very clearly today and I can see all of you. Thank you, Tzu Chi, and thanks to all the doctors and volunteers.”
Mlani’s daughter, Wathsala, has financial difficulties and could not afford to pay for treatment for her mother at a private hospital. It is also tiring for Mlani to travel long distance to seek treatment. Now that the free clinic has alleviated her mother's illness, Wathsala said to the volunteers in Singhalese, “Your loving kindness comes from the bottom of your heart, it is very sincere and it makes us feel happy.”
At the entrance of the hospital, volunteers told the family about Tzu Chi’s fundraising event to help Japan’s recent quake and tsunami victims. “We can only donate from whatever little money we have for the victims, but we certainly are very willing to help,” said Wathsala while dropping her family's donation and blessing for Japan. She remarked that Japan is an advanced country and believed it would recover from the disasters soon.
Gratitude to one another
82-year-old Granny Alahakoon arrived as scheduled on the first day of the free clinic to register for an eye surgery. Though the senior suffers from albinism with big, white patches on her dark skin, her well-coiffed hair, clean and light-colored traditional sari costume, and her kind smile and cultured demeanor made one take a few more glances of her in the crowd.
Granny Alahakoon is a devout Buddhist and she meditates and chants Buddhist scriptures every day. On the Poya Day of every month (Full Moon day, a Buddhist public holiday in Sri Lanka), she would visit the local temple to pray and make donation, but her poor eyesight has brought her a lot of inconveniences. The senior has had the cataract in her left eye removed at a private hospital last year, but the cataract in her right eye had been deteriorating to the extend that it became sightless.
Her surgery at the free clinic was arranged on the second day of the free clinic. During a follow up examination, after the removal of the gauze, she reached out to the volunteers and touched them on their faces, laughing and saying, “Now I can see very clearly!”
“I am very grateful to you for helping us Sri Lankans. You have created good karma and it will beget good for you.” This is the blessing from Granny Alahakoon to the Tzu Chi people. The volunteers told the senior that they were only doing what they should in line with the teachings of Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi. The volunteers then introduced the Master to the senior by showing her a photo of the Master, to which Granny Alahakoon recalled that she had seen the Master’s photo from some publications at the temple.
Putting her palms together, the senior paid her respect to Master Cheng Yen and said, “Now that I can see very clearly, I will recite the scriptures and transfer the merits to the Master and all of you helpful people.”
At that juncture, with a note in her hand, the senior told the volunteers she wanted to make donation to help the quake and tsunami victims in Japan. She explained that she had donated the 20 rupees she had with her the previous day. Feeling that it wasn’t enough, she asked for more money from her daughter the previous night. The volunteers quickly presented the donation box to her and the senior dropped the money into the box with much respect and blissfulness.
The senior caressed the heads of the volunteers when she walked them, saying that they were like her children. The volunteers, in return, hugged her warmheartedly.
Those who help feel happy themselves, and those at the receiving end turn their gratefulness into motivation to help too, thereby creating a wholesome cycle that sees helpfulness being transmitted incessantly.
Giving comfort in times of need
Donning an unbuttoned shirt and a worn-out sarong, a grey-haired and disheveled senior walked unsteadily with bare feet and a wooden stick into the free clinic for his checkup following his cataract surgery the previous day.
Grandpa Dharmadasa is a vagrant who wandered from place to place in the town. He survived with food donated to him and those that he begged from others. Everyone in the town knows him. He would sleep by the roadside or on the corridors of shop houses for the night. It was someone who saw the Tzu Chi free clinic banner and informed him to seek treatment from the free clinic that brought him here.
When she learned that the senior has forgot to bring the eye lotion dispensed to him the day before and the fact that he's leading a wandering life, Dr Goh quickly urged the volunteers to find out more about the situation of the senior, adding that post-surgery care is crucial to recovery speed and the senior will need someone to take care of him. The volunteers then accompanied the senior to places where he normally spent his time. After much enquiry, the senior said that he has a nephew living 2km away from the town. He then led the volunteers to where his nephew lives.
However, the nephew and his family did not appear to welcome him. The volunteers told his nephew that his uncle had just undergone an eye operation and needed someone to look after him. The volunteers hoped that the nephew would take him in and the local Tzu Chi volunteers would then follow up and extend their assistance. They also assured the nephew that the volunteers would bring his uncle for a checkup with the doctor in a week’s time. The nephew and his family, however, still appeared reluctant despite the volunteers' persuasion.
Fortunately, the volunteers bumped into a kindhearted neighbour, who happened to be the chief nurse with a hospital in Colombo. She promised enthusiastically to look after Grandpa Dharmadasa. The volunteers thanked the chief nurse heartily and assured her that Tzu Chi will offer long term care to the senior.
At the ceremony to mark the conclusion of the ophthalmology free clinic, Dr Goh Swee Heng said to the ophthalmic team: “We have carried out a total of 58 surgeries. All the patients have been very cooperative and all the surgeries were very successful with the patients recovering quickly.”
Dr Goh was very impressed with the professionalism exhibited by her team which comprised four doctors, nine nurses, two technicians, and 14 volunteers from Singapore and Colombo. “This team is new. I was a little worried in the beginning. But everything went smoothly during the 2-day free clinic. I am also grateful to our Tzu Chi volunteers. Congratulations to the ophthalmic team for having carried out its succession successfully!”
Dr Teh Huijun Gillian, making her debut at the free clinic, is with the Singapore Eye Centre and was responsible for eye examination during the free clinic. “The patients here suffer from very serious cataract as they don’t have money for surgeries. It is a very meaningful thing to perform operations for them and help them regain their eyesight.”
The hot weather there has taken its toll on this young doctor, making her feel a little unwell. However, witnessing how happy the patients are when they can see again makes her feel that it is a worthwhile effort. She certainly hopes that she can do her part again in future to help the Sri Lankans.