Minister Harsha de Silva’s brainchild:1990 Suwasariya: 108 babies delivered inside so far | Sunday Observer

Minister Harsha de Silva’s brainchild:1990 Suwasariya: 108 babies delivered inside so far

With the aid of Google Maps and GPRS systems 1990 Suwasariya is able to locate a patient within seconds. (Pix: Samantha Weerasiri)
With the aid of Google Maps and GPRS systems 1990 Suwasariya is able to locate a patient within seconds. (Pix: Samantha Weerasiri)

It all started after a near-fatal crash in Kantale. Non-Cabinet Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution Dr. Harsha de Silva, who was an Opposition Member of Parliament then and his friends were driving from Trincomalee during heavy rains when one of their vehicles crashed. A friend was seriously wounded and needed immediate attention.

With no help in sight, the politico and clan had to make a swift decision. For their luck among the group was Dr. Ruvani Goonewardene who helped to convert a van into a makeshift ambulance. They then rushed to the nearest hospital in Dambulla.

The patient had to be rushed to Colombo from Dambulla. An ambulance at the Dambulla District General Hospital was ready, but Dr. Goonewardene refused to remove the patient from their van and placed in the ambulance, which she said was ‘just a van’.

Minister Silva listened to the expert, and they came to Colombo in their makeshift ambulance. Consultant Surgeon Dr. Sunil Perera who treated the patient told Silva that not shifting to the ambulance operated by the state was the best decision he took. The friend survived the crash.

“That day I thought to myself if I ever get the chance, I will introduce a good pre-hospital care service to the country,” Minister Silva recalled.

Years later governments changed. Silva took oaths as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and for his luck India’s Prime Minster Narendra Modi was visiting Sri Lanka. As a token of friendship he was to fund a much-needed project in the country. Proposals for this ranged from school buildings to bridges.

However, Minister Silva was already aware of the pre-hospital care ambulance service Modi introduced in Gujarat when he served as its Chief Minister. So he went to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with his proposal - to ask Premier Modi to invest in a similar venture in Sri Lanka. PM Wickremesinghe gave the green light but said Silva had to somehow convince the soon arriving Indian Premier.

“For my luck, I met Prime Minister Modi at the parliament lobby and proposed my idea. He said “By all means young man. Let’s do it,” Minister Silva said during an interview with Lake House journalists.

That is how Sri Lanka’s most efficient service - 1990 Suwasariya Ambulance Service was birthed.

With an initial 7.6 million US dollar assistance from the Indian Government in July 2016 the service was introduced to the Western and Southern Provinces by GVK EMRI Lanka (Pvt) Ltd.

Now 297 fully equipped ambulances covering the nine provinces and a response time of 11.40 minutes on average, the pre-hospital care ambulance service is becoming popular among the masses. The call centre manned by 54 highly skilled staff responds to each toll-free call at the first ring 98.9 per cent of the time. The centre receives about 3,500 calls per day.

From its inception till this week 1990 Suwasariya has answered over 1,360,000 calls, hospitalised over 250,000 patients and most interestingly, delivered 108 babies inside its ambulances.

The journey for Minister Silva was far from a walk in the park. The project was met by resistance, especially from members the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) who refused to allow 1990 ambulances to be parked in state-run hospitals. They also accused the minster of bringing Indians to work in Sri Lanka.

“We even had to hire the first employees secretively,” Minister Silva said.

After discussing their issue, they then decided to park the ambulances at all police stations. “That worked well for us,” he added.

The service is now constantly being upgraded. With the aid of Google Maps and GPRS systems 1990 Suwasariya is able to locate a patient within seconds and allocate the ambulance that could reach him or her the fastest. The minister credits the hard working and passionate cadre for this accomplishment.

“They receive the same respect soldiers get from the public. Not for anything else but because they save lives,” he said.

Currently the service has a cadre of nearly 1,480 and the Minister hopes to increase it to about 2,000 by the end of this year. He also setup 300 sub-stations across the country to park the ambulances and for employees to rest. Within five years the service that operates on the 1990 Suwaseriya Foundation Act, is expected to be self-financed.

Minister Silva is very proud of the service he helped birth. “People are remembered for what they did and not what they said. This is my greatest achievement. When I retire I will know that I have delivered something to every single person who has cast a ballot for me and that I have not disappointed them,” he said.

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