Scourge is more deadly than war

Sri Lanka Natives Face Specter of Pestilence

by Sally Goldenberg, January 6, 2005

Cranbury physician Sri-Sujanthy Rajaram visited her native war-torn nation of Sri Lanka in August to treat war victims and train doctors, and felt good about the progress she made there.

What she didn't expect was to return so soon and to so much devastation.

Rajaram is headed back to Sri Lanka with 28 other U.S. doctors, including her husband, Rajaram Kandasamy, where they will treat trauma wounds, respiratory problems and dysentery brought about by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami.

"I think it's every Sri Lankan's responsibility at this time," Rajaram said. "It is not extraordinary what we are doing. Watching it in silence is worse."

She is coordinating the effort to help Sri Lanka through the International Medical Health Organization, formerly called the Tamil Health Organization, that she helped found in October 2003 to improve medical conditions for residents who lived through two decades of civil war in Sri Lanka.

Now the group's mission is much more urgent.

"The fear is the illnesses are going to take more lives than the tsunamis did," she said.

Kandasamy will board a plane Sunday for Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where doctors are being stationed before dispersing throughout the island nation. He will be armed with amoxicillin pills, rolls of gauze and tablets to disinfect drinking water. Though he is a kidney specialist, he will be prepared to treat whatever general medical needs arise.

Rajaram, a primary care doctor, will join her husband in February.

When the doctors are not treating patients, they will continue to coordinate the relief effort in Colombo for the Tamil Health Organization, which has already raised $50,000 and has transferred an additional $45,000 from its general fund to the tsunami relief effort.

Rajaram and Kandasamy, who are raising three children ages 5 to 13 in West Windsor, began coordinating the medical relief effort for New Jersey physicians in their organization as soon as they heard about the tsunamis.

Though none of their immediate relatives was affected, they come from close-knit areas where they believe their patients may not be strangers.

"One of my friends called. Her mom's brother's family is completely missing," she said.

The relief effort has taken over their lives. Rajaram said she answers hundreds of e-mails each day, receives just as many telephone calls from doctors who want to donate medical supplies and watches a Sri Lankan news channel when she is not working. She and her husband generally go to sleep at 1 a.m.

"The phone calls are constant. Since the morning, every five minutes it keeps ringing," she said.

The couple will leave their children with grandparents and take turns traveling to northern Sri Lanka. That section of the rebel-divided country is where they grew up, attended medical school, married and narrowly escaped danger in refugee camps.

As medical students, they thought they had seen the depths of trauma as they removed shrapnel from the legs of young war victims and treated bomb wounds. They moved to Canada in 1992, a year before immigrating to the United States.

Now they are preparing to return by getting vaccinations for hepatitis and typhoid and packing their bags with pills for nausea and fever.

Though they expect sicknesses to be rampant, they say they are not worried about themselves.

"I'm ready to take anything," she said. "The children ... have lost their parents. They don't know what's going on. It'll be really hard, being a mother."

Kandasamy is hoping to give the

orphans more than just medicine.

"I feel like I'm better off there, helping them," he said. "I think in a spiritual or psychological way, this will help them."

The Star-Ledger, Newark, New Jersey


Posted January 7, 2005