Saving lives | Sunday Observer

Saving lives

 Dr. Sreemali Herath, President PPA Mahamaya Girls’ College, Kandy (Colombo Branch) handing over the medical equipment to Prof Rohan Siriwardana
Dr. Sreemali Herath, President PPA Mahamaya Girls’ College, Kandy (Colombo Branch) handing over the medical equipment to Prof Rohan Siriwardana

The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane - Mahatma Gandhi

The aftermath of the Easter suicidal bomb blasts has shown that though there is a minority in Sri Lanka who are extremists promoting distrust among communities and instigating racial conflict, a majority of the citizens are peace loving and humane. Many have opened their hearts, as well as their wallets contributing towards the good of the citizenry during troubled times. This is yet another story of kindness and generosity.

“What can a fistful of rice do?” Many of us think that a fistful of rice has no worth. But collectively, it has raised funds to build a school in the central hills of Kandy. Past pupils who had benefited from those fistfuls of rice have now opened their fists again, to help save lives of those who need critical medical care.

“The promotional campaign was grounded on what’s called the ‘fistful of rice’. When our school was set up, it had been built with that principle. We reached out and said let’s continue to keep the legacy of a fistful of rice. It said come and let’s help save a life. Give your little donation that’s going to go far,” said Dr. Sreemali Herath, of the Postgraduate Institute for English (PGIE) of the Open University, her face lighting up with the exuberance of achievement.

Though their request was for a fistful, help had come in bushels and gunny bagsful. “This is why I have so much faith in humanity,” she explained, “Even before the official flier went public we had a pledge of close to a million rupees.”

Herath is the current President of the Colombo Chapter of the Past Pupils’ Association (PPA) of Mahamaya Girls’ College, Kandy. The PPA officially handed over a fully equipped ward based High Dependency Unit (DHU) to ward Nos. 41 & 42, the Professional Surgical Unit of the North Colombo Teaching Hospital (NCTH) at Ragama, earlier this month.

It was in the aftermath of the April 21 disaster that the PPA had learnt that the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the NCTH at Ragama had only six beds and that it needed support with ward based HDUs. The executive committee and the members of the chapter had been exploring ways to help disaster victims at the time and that had been when Gita Gunathileke, an octogenarian, the first Head Girl of Mahamaya Girl’s College and founder President of the Colombo Chapter had pointed out the need.

“In the face of a crisis of that magnitude, although the human resource and the know-how is there; our hospitals are not equipped to look after their patients. When a patient’s critical stage is over you can’t put him or her directly to the ward. That patient needs more care. If a patient is turned away from a hospital saying there is no bed, I think we fail as humanity,” said Herath.

While the country was at a standstill with people trying to grasp the devastation, calls had started coming in with the members asking how they were going to respond to the situation. The initial discussions had ranged from donating to the Cardinal’s Fund, helping selected families and awarding scholarships for child survivors of the blasts.

However, as they had to raise money for these activities they had had to be accountable as to how it was spent. It had also been difficult to take up long-term projects as the committee’s term of office was limited to one year.

“There was the problem of selection. How do you choose a family, how do you select a child, because the devastation was so big,” said Herath. They had had to abandon all those ideas.

“When Mrs. Gunathileke brought in the idea of supporting the NCTH at Ragama, we immediately identified with it. This was a very viable way of helping. When I actually chose this idea, what crossed my mind was that we live in a time where the state is increasingly failing us. They fail to provide and also to sustain public services. They are failing at education, public health care, transportation, infrastructure and many more. If we, the civil society don’t step in at a time like this, then, when failure happens, that’s when the privatization happens. I’m somebody who has never paid for my education here or abroad. I’ve always studied through scholarships and I know the value of free education.

In Sri Lanka there is an amazing healthcare system. In terms of doctors and the expertise it is amazing, but because of corruption the infrastructure is not good. So for me it was like, as civil society we have to step up when the state is failing, let’s invest in our society. Let’s invest and make sure that these services are sustained,” said Herath.

The NCTH doctors had come up with the requirement. They had sent a proposed budget and had provided guidelines of what they needed.

They had directed the team to local suppliers and manufacturers who were providing quality equipment. “It was very good, so it was a matter of placing the order to be delivered to the hospital. The hospital staff made sure that all the equipment was there and everything was arranged,” she explained.

The hospital is grateful to the Colombo Chapter of the PPA of the Mahamaya Girls’ College for equipping the HDU.

“The six bedded surgical intensive care unit of the hospital is bursting at its seams as it provides care to patients from specialties such as obstetrics and pediatrics in addition to patients from seven surgical units. The unit also admits patients transferred for specialized care from all over the country. Frequently, life saving surgery gets postponed due to the severe shortage of beds for intensive care,” said Dr. Bhagya Gunathileke.

The newly constructed surgical intensive care unit is yet to be commissioned due to the lack of essential equipment and shortage of nursing staff. “In this context a ward-based HDU has become vital for the smooth functioning of the surgical unit.”

And now, the brand new HDU, provides a lifeline to surgical patients whose lives would otherwise depend on the availability of beds in the surgical intensive care unit.

“This HDU provides critical care to patients before and after complex high risk surgery such as pancreatic, biliary, liver surgery, liver and kidney transplantation, surgery of the gastrointestinal tract, thyroid gland and major blood vessels which are carried out in this surgical unit. A majority of these are for treatment of cancer. Most patients have conditions including cirrhosis, heart disease and chronic kidney failure which may require intensive care before and after surgery,” said Dr. Gunathileke . The new HDU enables providing safe and efficient care while running at full capacity.

“We couldn’t have done it without the support of the donors. What was amazing was the way people came up with big donations,” says Herath confessing her thinking had been small. “Because of the economic conditions we are in, people can’t afford to be generous even if they want to right now, because life is hard. So who is going to give money for the saline poles and the crash carts?” Had they been collecting small sums with a ceiling of a maximum sum, they could never have done it, she says in retrospect.

When they collected a million rupees they felt their cause and the effort was recognised by others. “It was not only the past pupils, it was a collective contribution of their families, loved ones and friends,” she said.

The total cost of equipping the HDU had been Rs. 1.5 M, while the basic equipment had cost them Rs. 800,000 the rest had been spent on providing the unit with much needed but expensive disposables such as oxygen cylinders.

The organisation views the effort as a social investment, as the hospital at Ragama is a teaching hospital. Though there had been an initial discussion about the benefit to the school, they had found two undergraduates from Mahamaya Girls’ College currently completing their internship at the hospital. The HDU, could be used to “Provide training opportunities to undergraduate medical students, postgraduates in anaesthesia and surgery as well as students in nursing and physiotherapy, said Dr. Gunathileke.

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