Oral Health Group
Feature

Tsunami teaches lessons in humanity

March 1, 2005
by Jana Seijts


Each of us is called upon, at one time or another, to come to the aid of those less fortunate than ourselves. How each person responds to this call differs. Some may choose to ignore it, but for others, when the time comes, a deep urge to help stirs them into action. Dr. Migara Weerasinghe, a Toronto area dentist, was stirred on December 26, 2004. That morning a powerful earthquake off the coast of Sumatra rocked South Asia and was followed by a giant tsunami that swept through the region, killing more than 150,000.

As his family helplessly watched the news coverage of the disaster, Dr. Weerasinghe decided that he had to find a way to help. In the 1960s, when he was still a boy, Dr. Weerasinghe’s parents immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka. Despite the distance, the family managed to maintain close ties to their homeland. The last time Dr. Weerasinghe had visited the island paradise was in 1996, when he returned to his family’s village to lay his father to rest. His father, who had battled cancer, wanted to be buried in the country he always called home.

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“How could I not be affected after watching something like this? The one thing I kept thinking about at the time was a saying I had heard on one of the newscasts, ‘There by the grace of God go I’. No adage could have been more appropriate to my life at that moment than this one; had my parents not left Sri Lanka, it could have been my family caught in the midst of the disaster. As I watched the photos of the survivors, I saw so many that reminded me of my own children. Those images continue to haunt me.”

But Dr. Weerasinghe had another reason for wanting to help.

“My father had always loved Sri Lanka and I wanted to do something that I thought would have made him proud.”

At his dental practice, he put out a donation box hoping that at the very least this would initiate a conversation about the need to give to those in the region.

“I was surprised by the early outpouring of generosity of those in the community.” Many in the tight-knit neighbourhood had come into the office to give donations after hearing that a collection had been started. It was in his conversations with his patients that Dr. Weerasinghe realized that he wanted to actually go to the area and physically help.

“I wanted to go; at the very least I could help lift bricks and debris. But what I really wanted to do was use my training to help the survivors. I didn’t want to simply collect money; I wanted to make a difference. I have to admit I didn’t know where to start.”

Many of the organized aid agencies did not want people like Dr. Weerasinghe to go to the region. He was told by a prominent agency that he needed special training and that at the moment there was no need for dental practitioners. With an edge to his comments, Dr. Weerasinghe recalls his dealings with the agency:

“There was an obvious skepticism with regards to what a dentist could do in this situation. The reaction of the existing Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) was not supportive to say the least.” Dr. Weerasinghe wanted to put his training in emergency dentistry to use. According to him, “many people had trauma to the mouth after being hit by debris. Moreover, medical and dental facilities, and pharmaceutical dispensaries in the southern and southeastern areas of the island were decimated. When I called the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, I was given an extensive list of urgently needed medical supplies.” He was also put in touch with the Merill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation and local doctors who were struggling with the medical needs of those in the refugee camps. The local doctors were much more supportive of his wish to come and help.

After having decided to make the trip to Sri Lanka, Dr. Weerasinghe and his wife Gayani approached the Markham-Stouffville Hospital, local pharmacies, dentists, and doctors and asked if they would like to donate supplies that were on the list given to him by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health. He also turned to friends, family and his patients for donations.

“I figured I might get a box or two of goods from people, but I was not prepared for the outpouring of generosity and caring that soon became apparent.” Boxes of medical supplies took over his waiting room and lined the halls to his practice, making it difficult to move around. Many patients wanted to help in any way they could. Some volunteered to help collect goods, while others helped to pack and label boxes.

After closing his practice for 10 days, the Weerasinghe’s arrived in Sri Lanka, and immediately made their way to the makeshift aid centre that they were told about through an email with a Sri Lankan doctor. The group consisted of independent health professionals and aid workers, not affiliated with any of the large NGOs, who were brought together by their desire to lend a hand during the crisis. The makeshift network set up a central hub where supplies were to be shared. Each day scouts from the network would fan out to the different refugee camps to find out what supplies were most needed. Later that day, or the following day, a team would return to the camps with the required supplies and to provide aid to the people.

Dr. Weerasinghe visited several of the camps in the south and eastern coastal areas that were hardest hit by the tsunami. In Ambalangoda, Hikkaduwa, and Kirinda he set up dental clinics to provide services to refugee in the camps. Dr. Weerasinghe saw numerous children, many of whom had been either hit by debris in the mouth or who were thrown against walls, trees, etc. He also treated many adults with preexisting dental conditions such caries, periodontal disease and dental abscesses. The most serious case he saw was a man developing Ludwig’s Angina caused by a dental infection.

When asked what he has learned from his experience, Dr. Weerasinghe is pensive for a moment as he glances out his office window.

“The whole event showed me that in times of crisis, people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, ethnic origin or religion, reach out to one another. It is the overwhelming generosity that I witnessed that touched me. People took time out from their lives to help others and to help me and my family.” During his ten days in Sri Lanka, Dr. Weerasinghe learned of the dignified resolve of the Sri Lankan people as they began to pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild. He learned of their sincere gratitude to the people who had showed them such compassion.

Dr. Weerasinghe also learned something new about himself.

“One of the most surprising things for me personally has been my new found knowledge that I could step outside my comfort zone and put aside my own needs and fears to do something for others. It’s been a wonderful life lesson.”

According to Dr. Weerasinghe, there is a lot that dentists in Canada could do to help those in crisis zones or underdeveloped areas of the world. Now is a good time for the profession to mobilize so that practicing dentists and retired dentists could volunteer their time and skills to help those in need.

“I think we need to be proactive when it come to public relations and educate people about the type of work dentists can do in crisis situations.” The Canadian Dental Association (CDA) and the Ontario Dental Association (ODA) should lead the charge to develop such an agency, to develop partnerships with dental organizations in these countries, and to share refurbished dental equipment, he says.

“We have a lot to offer in the way of skills, current methods of doing things, and even equipment. After seeing the need up close, I for one would be happy to join with other dentists to develop this type of an outreach program, because our help has never been so important and needed.”

***

Pictures

1. Destruction throughout Sri Lanka.

2. Treating dental patients at the Moggoda refugee camp.

3. Destroyed train, 2000 victims.

4. A family whose 1 1/2-year-old became tangled in a coconut tree was spared by the tsunami.

5
. Children who have lost a parent or sibling stay at a refugee camp.

6. Dental fractures from the tsunami.

7. Sixteen boxes of supplies.

8. This boy suffers nightmares after his two sisters died in front of him.

9. Sorting through medicine.

10. Gayani Weerasinghe gives a child a Barbie doll and a letter from a Canadian child.

11. Family photos litter the ground.

12. Colombo airport.

13. Dr. Weerasinghe treating refugees in Kirinda refugee camp.

14. Refugee camps scattered throughout Sri Lanka coast.

15. Food lines.

16. Household belongings scattered over the countryside.

17. Makeshift medical centre in a former classroom in Ambalangoda.

18. More children of the tsunami.

19. Destruction throughout Sri Lanka.

20. Pre-existing rampant decay.

21. Dr. Weerasinghe and an English RN aid worker.


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