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Happy Faces in Hambantota

Thank you, Tzu Chi, for letting me be part of the Sri Lankan mission.

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The author (in blue scrubs) with the TIMA team in the operating room at the Sri Lanka medical mission.

When my colleague, Dr Ho Eu Chin, asked me to help him out by joining the medical mission to Hambantota (a town in the southern coast of Sri Lanka) organised by Tzu Chi Singapore, I jumped eagerly at the chance. I was really looking forward to the trip as I had never been to Sri Lanka before, and more importantly, this was the very first time that our ENT specialty would be represented under the umbrella of TIMA Singapore (the Singapore chapter of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association).

I had joined two other medical missions previously but this was the first time I had heard of Tzu Chi and its global philanthropic objectives. At first, I was slightly apprehensive, when the pre-trip briefing unveiled a set of rules and regulations dictating the exact style of shoes and the colour of hand luggage. But once the mission began, the actual work we could and would do was far more important than dwelling on these minor details.

When we arrived at the Tzu Chi National School in Hambantota where the free clinic was going to be held from 29 to 31st May 2015, I was pleasantly surprised to see hundreds of local people waiting patiently in a huge hall, some of whom had walked a few miles in slippers under the hot sun to come to the clinic.

Our ENT clinic was allocated space in the only air-conditioned room, next to the Minor Surgery section which was convenient as some of our patients needed minor surgery as well, such as removal of moles and benign tumours. It turned out to be much busier than I had expected, with many patients needing flexible nasal endoscopy procedures to check out their nose or throat problems, and ear clearance for impacted earwax, foreign bodies or infection. It was already challenging enough to clean their ears out with just a simple headlight, without the help of our usual microscope, but it became even more demanding when young children turned up to have their ears cleaned, with the youngest aged only 2 years old. There was screaming and wailing from the children during their procedures, which was mildly distressing initially but then I found it extremely rewarding to see the mothers’ worried faces light up with relief after their children’s ears were finally sorted out. The children themselves were won over with the simple offer of a sweet, thank goodness.

I was also amazed to learn that even general advice given to patients who came wielding their CT and MRI scans performed at the regional hospital, readily earned profuse thanks and reassurance. Whole families would eventually turn up to see us as the word quickly spread about our ENT mission. Our own interpreter ended up bringing his pregnant wife and mother-in-law for a thorough ENT checkup “just in case”, as he said enthusiastically.

It wasn’t just the patients who were beaming happily though. Every member of the medical mission had an important role to play, and it was clear that all of them took pride in what they were doing, always trying their best to solve each problem as soon as it cropped up.

When there was an electrical blackout in our room, I was impressed to see how fast the technical team reacted to put up backup lighting to ensure the smooth running of the Minor Surgery side. Operating in the dark with a torchlight was new to me! When we needed a method to support our flexible nasal endoscope, we were swiftly presented with the solution ─ a hand-crafted hook device, the very next morning. The happiness and enthusiasm from everyone was quite infectious.

I thought it was rather refreshing to be part of such a large scale and well-organised medical mission which did not impose any strong religious constraints on its participants. Well, I bought two TIMA T-shirts (the “uniform”) for our Sri Lankan mission so I’m looking forward to putting them to good use again in future!

Thank you, Tzu Chi, for letting me be part of the Sri Lankan mission.

Note: Dr Annabelle Leong is a consultant ENT surgeon at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital

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