A Helping Hand in Times of Need

By Saman Priyankara Nammunige | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 7 2021
Focus A Helping Hand in Times of Need

By Saman Priyankara Nammunige

The medical profession is one of the noblest professions. A doctor is an embodiment of compassion and care for the sick and feeble, healing the minds and bodies of scores of people, during their lifetime. From the onset of the highly infectious coronavirus pandemic, the medical professionals have been at the forefront, battling the pandemic, often putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk. 

Trapped inside personal protective equipment throughout the day, doctors perform the near-impossible task of taking care of each of the symptomatic COVID cases warded in hospitals around the country, often disregarding physical discomfort, and staying away from family members for extended periods of time, to prevent the risk of infection spreading. 

Nearly two years since the virus outbreak was first detected in the country, the situation has now been controlled to a certain extent, aided by the robust vaccination drive and social practices such as wearing masks in public places, constant sanitising of hands, and maintaining social distancing. 

Although the number of cases reported on a daily basis has reduced, the pandemic’s toll on the local economy has been immense. Medical care facilities in hospitals have been stretched thin, with equipment wearing out faster than in the pre-pandemic era. It is in such a context that a group of medical professionals have gone above and beyond their call of duty, and decided to raise funds to provide much-needed medical care facilities to selected hospitals in the country.    

The North Colombo Medical College Alumni Association (NCMCAA), realising the dire shortages in the State medical care facilities, gathered their members who are scattered over many parts of the world, to lend a helping hand. 

NCMCAA committee member, Consultant Dr. Ashok John Puvimanasinghe, Global Fund, Geneva, said, “Most members of our Association are serving in different countries. A few others are based in Sri Lanka. All of us have been donating medical equipment to hospitals that were in need of such facilities from the beginning of the pandemic. But, it was all done on an individual basis.” 

“Then we realised that we could make a bigger impact if all of us could get together. Therefore, we set up a WhatsApp group and met on Zoom to discuss how best we could do this. We decided to address the issue of shortage of certain medical equipment in hospitals. As COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, many hospitals lack equipment to treat patients who contract this virus.” 

“The team of 27 medical doctors decided to initially focus on COVID care centres, specifically set up to treat coronavirus infected patients. First, we distributed oximeters and then oxygen concentrators. We got 500 oximeters with the funds collected from our members. They were given to the COVID care centres on the condition that in case the centre is closed down, the equipment should be handed to the nearest hospital.” 

“We brought down the oximeters from the UK. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, C.A. Chandraprema as well Sri Lankan High Commissioner in the UK, gave an immense helping hand to bring these equipment to Sri Lanka. NCMCAA had spent a sum of Rs 1.5 million towards this endeavour. Apart from this, 10 oxygen concentrators, worth Rs 400,000 to 500,000 each, were donated to several rural hospitals that lack basic facilities. Before making donations, we made sure the equipment would reach the places that have a dire need for them. We also wanted to make sure that oximeters would reach hospitals in all 24 districts.”

High Dependency Unit at IDH

NCMCAA next focused on an urgent request made to them by the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians to help construct a High Dependency Unit for children at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (IDH). “Following a lengthy discussion with our members, we decided to set up a fund to raise money to achieve this task. We were thrilled to raise more than the required amount of Rs 7 million within a short period of time.”    

“We were able to overcome certain issues that cropped up during the construction with the help of the Sri Lanka Army, who were involved in a separate construction work at the same premises. We are grateful to Sergeant Lanka Perera for his helping hand. He was in charge of the technical aspect of the construction. Dr. Priyantha Weerarathne took the trouble to visit the site from time to time, to ensure smooth-running of the operation.” 

Dr. Puvimanasinghe assured that the High Dependency Unit is being built to the highest standards. “We are renovating an old building and setting up state-of-the-art equipment to make sure that the unit can be operated to high standards. We have also made provisions to provide iPads and reading books for the children who are warded at this unit.” The team has also focused their attention on providing special training to the nursing and other staff members serving in this unit. 

“We first identify the need, before giving our service. That way, we can render our service in the most effective manner. Also, we will not look away once this unit is handed over to the hospital. We will always be there to address any subsequent issues that might arise,” Dr. Puvimanasinghe stressed.

Joining the discussion next was Dr. Mahendra Munasinghe, Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka. Dr. Munasinghe was instrumental in the construction of a surgical unit at the Kandy General Hospital. He also rendered an immense service when the cardiac surgical unit at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children was being built.  

“I volunteered to oversee the obtaining of technical equipment for this unit. We made sure that each equipment is the best and state-of-the-art. We obtained them from companies that provide best equipment and service. We can guarantee that this unit will function for a long time, as all the equipment are brand new. We also expect to upgrade this High Dependency Unit into an Intensive Care Unit in the near future. For the moment, we will have five beds.”

Senior Consultant Paediatrician, Dr. Kosala Karunaratne, Vice President of the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians, said “During the height of the pandemic, a large number of children were infected with COVID-19. Some of them suffered severe symptoms, mostly due to underlying illnesses. We had to encounter a lot of complications when treating these children. Some children were transferred to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children from the IDH, as IDH did not have either an ICU or a High Dependency Unit.” 

“There was a great risk of bringing COVID infected children to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital, where children suffering from numerous types of diseases are being treated. A number of COVID infected children were brought to Lady Ridgeway from hospitals all over the country due to lack of facilities to treat them.”

“We identified this issue and built a unit at the Hambantota Hospital. Then we identified IDH as the next hospital to build a unit. Unfortunately, we were not able to collect sufficient funds for this purpose. It takes time to get funds approved from the Government.” 

“It is at this point that NCMCAA stepped forward to build this unit. Then we set up a committee, along with the Director of the IDH, to make this project a success. This is a timely need for the IDH Hospital. Even after we fully control the COVID pandemic, this High Dependency Unit will help us take care of children infected with dengue.”

Till now, the IDH only catered to adults suffering from infectious diseases. Soon, they will start taking care of children who contract infectious diseases. 

IDH Director, Dr. Hasitha Attanayake, said the new High Dependency Unit at the IDH will open on Wednesday 8 December. “IDH is the best hospital to treat infectious diseases, even if we surpass our capacity. Most patients who are brought here are often battling for their life. We saved a number of COVID patients who had breathing difficulties and those who were at pneumonia stage.”

“But we had one issue: The lack of a High Dependency Unit to treat children. We had to transfer critically ill children to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital. We had no other choice. It was not the most prudent step to send children suffering from a highly infectious disease such as COVID to Lady Ridgeway, where children suffering from many different illnesses are sent from around the country.” 

“But now we can treat the COVID infected children at IDH itself. For this, I must express my heartfelt gratitude to the NCMCAA.”

It is noteworthy that NCMCAA has resolved not to step aside once this High Dependency Unit for children is opened tomorrow, but has assured that they would constantly monitor to make sure that it is regularly maintained to ensure that the highest quality of service is given to the children of this country.  

By Saman Priyankara Nammunige | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 7 2021

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