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Relieving the Sick and Needy in Bandaragama, Sri Lanka

Since August 2009, the medical team of Tzu Chi Singapore has been conducting big scale free clinic biannually in Sri Lanka. The fourth free clinic in the series took place from 18 to 20 Mar at the Bandaragama District Hospital in Western Province.

Volunteers transferring patients from operating room to the recovery room. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

Tzu Chi’s care and concern for Sri Lanka has remained strong for the past six years since the 2004 tsunami hit South Asia. Since the country is lacking in its medical resources and services, from August 2009, the medical team from Tzu Chi Singapore branch (TIMA Singapore) visits Sri Lanka biannually to conduct large scale free clinics.

The fourth free clinic in the series took place over the weekend of 18 to 20 Mar 2011 at the Bandaragama District Hospital for the first time. The hospital is one hour away by car from Colombo.

Bandaragama is in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, covering 105 villages with an approximate population of 150,000. The Bandaragama District Hospital is the biggest hospital in the district, providing medical services in gynaecology, dentistry, medicine, psychiatry and emergency. Though there are only 60 beds and basic facilities in the hospital, it plays an important role in providing medical care for the residents in the area.

Going all out and turning office into operating room

Two days prior to the free clinic (16 Mar), over 40 volunteers arrived in the location of the free clinic to do all the preparatory work such as transporting medical equipment, tidying up and cleaning the place, installing air conditioners and electricity and water supplies, turning offices into operating room, consultation room, recovery room and so on. The hospital is very supportive of the free clinic; the superintendent, Richard, even got his room make way for an operating room for eye diseases.

On 18 Mar, the full medical team of 147 arrived at the free clinic. There were 83 volunteers (10 of whom were from Malaysia) and 64 medical personnel, injecting much life and vibrancy into an otherwise quiet street.

A simple but solemn opening ceremony began with the sound of prayers. Apart from inviting Buddhist monks to chant and bless the event, the health minister for Western Province, Dr Amal Harsha De Silva, also arrived to grace the event.

The health minister’s attitude was one of "not totally convinced" when he was first approached by Tzu Chi Sri Lanka branch about the free clinic. However, after having taken a tour of the free clinic, having seen the advanced medical facilities, the experienced medical team and the sincerity of the volunteers, all his doubts and worries were dispelled and he was deeply touched.

The next day, the minister came to visit the free clinic again with his family members, showing his high appreciation and support for Tzu Chi. “The Tzu Chi people have sacrificed their time and put in their money to help the underprivileged. Their love for the others is highly commendable and they have set a good example for us to learn from.”

Generosity amid poverty

The strong quake and ensuing tsunami that hit Japan on 11 Mar 2011 has shocked the world. Many Sri Lankans are also aware of the catastrophe. The Sri Lankan Tzu Chi volunteers made an effort to explain the situation in Japan in the waiting area at the free clinic and encouraged those present to donate in any amount to bless Japan. Though they themselves do not enjoy a high living standard and are not well to do, many villagers who have experienced the same plight as the Japanese in December 2004 still responded enthusiastically and made the occasion one that was full of love and kindness.

There were those who couldn’t wait to donate their monies while still in prayer. A cataract patient, Silipala, felt that he should donate more after having donated all the money he had with him. He then sent his daughter home to bring more money, to which the daughter gathered all they had at home—3000 rupees (S$34.40) in total—and dropped the money into the donation box without hesitation.

With tears welling up in his eyes, Silipala said, “Sri Lanka was hit by tsunami before. I can understand how the Japanese refugees feel. I would like to donate even more, unfortunately I don’t have much money.” Silipala’s daughter, Amitha, was perspiring profusely after having run 2km to bring more money from home to donate away, but she was highly agreeable to his father’s kind act. After an introduction to Tzu Chi by Tzu Chi staff, Dimuthu, she immediately decided to make long term donation to Tzu Chi to become a Tzu Chi member. She said, “Though I am not very rich, I'm happy to donate some of my money to help others.”

Relieving lifelong sufferings

The bright red Sun created a heat wave for those in the long queue at the free clinic. The volunteers were busy handing out water and biscuits to those in the queue while performing cheerful songs to make the waiting more bearable. But for some villagers who couldn’t seem to ever able to afford their medical bills, they did not mind the long wait.

Geetha has been bearing a huge tumour that looked like big water bag on her back for 20 years. Her peasant family could not afford to pay for her treatment as they were earning barely enough. Year after year, Geetha's tumour kept growing and the deformation of her body have made her feel inferior and shy to the extent that she would shun away from wearing sari, the traditional costume worn by Sri Lankan women during special days.

Dr Low Jee Ming conducted an examination on Geetha and then started to perform an operation on her. “This tumour is very big and it cannot be removed at one go as it may lead to hemorrhage," the general surgeon explained. "It has to be removed bit by bit, and the wound has to be sewn first every time one bit of it was removed, making the operation a complicated one.”

So, there was Geetha, laying on her back in the ward bed, enduring silently the fear brought about by the operation, hoping that the going would be smooth. At the end of the operation, the tumour that had been removed was found to weigh a shocking 2kg.

Having the tumour which had been on her back for 20 years removed certainly eased Geetha. The first thing she said happily while stepping out of the operation room was “My body feels so much lighter now.”

With the water bag-like tumour gone, she can now lie on her back when she sleeps. Most importantly, she no longer feels inferior and shy. She can now wear sari like the local women do, enjoying the freedom of choosing her clothing like ordinary people. Both she and her husband who accompanied her to the free clinic laughed happily. With the source of her long term suffering eradicated, Geetha was getting sentimental and when she left the free clinic, she couldn’t help keep looking back and there was endless gratitude in her eyes.

Empathy makes patients smile

Due to an accident that involved a gas explosion eight years ago, 46-year-old Chandralatha’s face and neck had suffered serious burn. Though she had sought treatment at bigger hospitals in Colombo then, she was too poor to continue her treatment. Due to the contraction of her neck skin, she has problem in turning and raising her head.

Chandralatha was very nervous before the operation and she looked very stressful. The doctor and volunteers kept comforting her. Dr Ng Kim Kok, who operated on Chandralatha, mentioned that he had come across a few burn cases but Chandalatha’s operation took longer as he had to slit the scar on Chandralatha’s neck first and then two pieces of skin had to be removed from his abdomen and transplanted to his neck, so that her head could turn freely.

Chandralatha grinned after a successful operation and she was very touched by what the medical team had done for her. She said in tears after thanking Dr Ng and the volunteers, “I will never forget your kindness. You've helped solved an old problem of mine once and for all.”

Burn cases are indeed common in Sri Lanka—32-year-old Channda is another victim.

Channda used to work as a trishaw rider. One day, while repairing his trishaw, the engine caught fire and burnt his hands. All his ten fingers became twisted as a result. When the accident happened, he was sent to a hospital in Colombo for treatment and had six of his twisted fingers straightened. However, the ring and little fingers on both his hands were still twisted. “I didn’t have money to complete the treatment as transportation already cost me a lot of money,” said Channda.

In order not to inconvenience his daily life, Dr Fong Poh Him proposed that Channda’s left hand be operated first and his right hand would be taken care of at the next free clinic. The operation went very smoothly; Channda mentioned happily that he could ride the trishaw more safely now that his fingers could be straightened. That is important to him as he could make his living as a trishaw rider again. Leaving the free clinic with gratitude and a satisfactory smile, Channda and his wife will be starting a new life together.

The most beautiful smile is that of a patient successfully treated, and the smile is also the most rewarding to the caregivers. The two-and-a-half day free clinic was concluded amidst gratitude from the patients. Looking back on their achievements and the blissfulness experienced over the last few days, the medical team members couldn’t help shedding tears of joy. The fourth free clinic had benefitted 2221 villagers in total in services as surgery, ophthalmology, dentistry and medicine.

The Tzu Chi people will be setting their foot on the Sri Lankan soil again soon. They will continue to look after and protect the health of its people and bring love with them to every corner of the country.

The simple yet solemn opening ceremony begins with sounding prayers for tsunami-hit Japan. (Photo by Lim Chee Wah)

Western Province health minister Dr Silva visiting the different sections of the free clinic under the company of Brother David Liu, who superintends Tzu Chi Singapore and the Tzu Chi liaison office in Sri Lanka. (Photo by Li Nan Jin)

Four Buddhist monks chant blessings for a smooth and successful free clinic at the opening ceremony. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

Fundraising to help quake-tsunami victims in Japan at the free clinic is supported strongly by the loving and kind Sri Lankans who have suffered the same fate in 2004. (Photo by Lim Chee Wah)

Doctors examining the burn scars of Chandralatha. The patient had suffered serious burn during a gas explosion accident eight years ago. (Photo by Yan Su Yuan)

Silipala, who was affected by the Asian tsunami in 2004, donates all he has with him. He even sends his daughter home to bring more money for donation. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

Volunteers making preparation for the removal of the 2kg tumour on Geetha’s back. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

Dr Low Jee Ming operating on Geetha for more than 2 hours after a detailed medical examination. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

Volunteers helping those who have difficulties in walking to the free clinic. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

After a successful operation on the twisted ring and little fingers on his left hand, Channda put his palms together to express his gratitude to TIMA surgeon, Dr Fong Poh Him. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

The volunteers' wide grin has calmed a nervous grandmother as she takes her blood sugar test. (Photo by Lim Chee Wah)

The preparation team springs into action as soon as they arrive at Bandaragama District Hospital. (Photo by Douglas Goh)

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