Area doctors aid Sri Lanka's tsunami victims in waves

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    NEWTON-The unprecedented devastation left by the massive tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, and many of the relief efforts following, continue to be a story that touches lives, even a world away. Countless local residents have given money and donated supplies, but a few local doctors have heeded the call and have donated themselves n their time and their talents where they are "needed most." Dr. Robert C. Greaves is an emergency physician at Newton Memorial Hospital, and his wife, Rhonda is a Registered Nurse. "We were watching the news and seeing the widespread devastation," recalled Dr. Greaves, "and we were out the door within 72 hours." Armed with little more than medical supplies, a tent and a list of local contacts, Robert and Rhonda Greaves boarded the first of four flights that would take them to Sri Lanka on Jan. 1. While many families were preparing for their New Year's Eve celebrations, the Greaves engaged themselves in a flurry of securing time off work, coordinating donated medical supplies and antibiotics, pursuing local family and friendly connections of trusted associates and developing an exhausting travel itinerary. "Our goal was to be self-sufficient and provide medical assistance in areas outside the refugee camps, which were already beginning to receive aid from some of the larger relief agencies," explained Dr. Greaves. With no personal connection to the country, Greaves worked with Newton colleague Dr. Daya Nadarajah and Denville Mayor Gene Feyl to compile contacts in Sri Lanka. In Denville Jay Linage, a coordinator for the township's annual Sri Lanka Day, proved to be a valuable resource and Dr. Nadarajah was able to put Greaves in touch with a friend in Columbo to serve as translator and assist with local transportation. After 26 hours in the air, plus connections, the Greaves began their 11-day adventure in Sri Lanka. They started off in the capital, Columbo, and headed South to Galle. The refugee camps in Galle had begun to receive medical help, so once they were able to determine that the road down the coast was open, they hired a British ambulance driver and headed down to Tirrokovil on Sri Lanka's southeast coast. There was concern that they might not be welcomed, as some of the eastern villages had mixed populations, and were disputed territory between the country's military and the Tamil rebel forces. "But they assured us that as westerners, we were not the issue, and they were very grateful," said Dr. Greaves. "In fact, Sri Lanka's Air Force flew us in. We were told, ‘there is a helicopter leaving tomorrow morning at 7:30 a.m.' It was truly a military helicopter like you see in movies: no seats, no doors and you're sitting 8 inches from the edge. A local English teacher helped with translation and we had a ‘special task force' who drove us around and donated additional medical supplies." Dr. Greaves reported no epidemics and not a lot of waterborne illnesses. His treatments covered what he anticipated from the great numbers living in such close proximity to each other n a lot of respiratory and/or viral illnesses. "They are sleeping on dirt floors and cooking over open fires, so coughing and sinus issues were expected." A country of almost 20 million, many of Sri Lanka's coastal areas were washed away. Dr. Greaves described the damage as "severe, but focused. Just one mile inland, wells were not contaminated." The Greaves confirmed what the world already knew: the material devastation paled in comparison to the human toll. "Of course we heard so many incredibly sad stories n people lost half of their family, children were ripped from their mother's arms, and families were trying to collect bodies of loved ones before they were washed out to sea. But we met so many wonderfully resilient people," he said. Dr. Greaves was also able to assess firsthand what kinds of donations are still needed for relief efforts. "Food is being distributed and there are stacks of clothing. Supplies are cheaper (in Sri Lanka) so donating money is better. What these people really need now are building materials, beds and kitchens. And long-term medical needs are becoming the issue," he said, adding that the population will also need professional assistance to deal with residual psychological trauma. "People are suffering from depression and kids are having night terrors. They need to rebuild their homes, and their lives." Newton Memorial's Dr. Daya Nadarajah will be leaving for Sri Lanka on Feb. 22. He will be joined by Dr. W. Takshan de Alwis, Chief of Psychiatry at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. Both doctors serve on the Executive Committee of the Sri Lanka Medical Association of North America (SLMANA). "Sri Lanka is entering more of a rehabilitation phase," explained Dr. Nadarajah. "We are starting to take a look at the country's long-term needs. I will be visiting hospitals to assess if there is adequate training and infrastructure and Dr. de Alwis will be aiding counseling centers, treating post traumatic stress disorders and bereavement issues." A specific itinerary is still being developed, but Dr. Nadarajah expects to visit the eastern city of Batticaloa, the southern Galle District, and Columbo, in addition to accessible areas in the north. With no family remaining in the country, Dr. Nadarajah will stay with friends while in Columbo. Recently coordinated medical equipment and supplies, donated by Newton Memorial Hospital and its medical staff, will be shipped directly to selected hospitals through the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). Donated items include ICU monitors, nebulizers, antibiotics and oxymetry equipment, used to check oxygen saturation in the blood.