Native Doctors Return, Roll Up Their Sleeves

by Sapna Kollali, February 13, 2005

Oneida doctors Daniel Ratnarajah and Renza Samad arrived at a refugee camp in northeastern Sri Lanka last month and found just a handful of people waiting to be examined.

A short time later, things changed drastically, Samad said.

"Someone said over the intercom 'Some doctors from America are here' and all of a sudden, there were lines and lines of people," he said.

Ratnarajah and Samad, who are both Sri Lanka natives, spent two weeks in their home country last month providing medical services to people displaced by the Dec. 26 tsunami. They visited refugee camps in about seven cities and villages along the island's coasts.

The doctors are partners at Oneida Medical Associates. Ratnarajah has been in the United States since 1981, Samad since 1991. A third Oneida partner, Rathika Martyn, will travel to Sri Lanka next month to continue where her colleagues left off. Martyn is also a native of Sri Lanka and has been in the United States since 1992.

In mid-January,Ratnarajah and Samad landed in Columbo, the nation's capital, rented a van and driver, and spent the next two weeks driving from camp to camp, often getting up at 3 a.m. "to beat the traffic" and seeing 50 to 100 patients per day.

"We had our own transportation and we had all our supplies in the van, so we just said 'Tell us where to go and we'll go,' " Ratnarajah said. "Because we were mobile, we could see people anywhere - in churches, schools, sometimes just under a tree we treated them."

Luckily, Samad said, local doctors and health officials had managed to contain many of the infectious diseases. Adequate food and fresh water helped prevent widespread diarrhea, dysentery and cholera, he said.

"We saw a lot of coughs, colds, chest congestion, respiratory infection. Also a lot of wounds, bruises," Ratnarajah said. "These people got thrashed around and banged up pretty badly. It's really difficult to even imagine."

Even more than physical ailments, Ratnarajah said, Sri Lankans suffered tremendous psychological trauma:

The 6-year-old girl who is now so terrified of water that she will not bathe;

The 10-year-old boy who feels guilty for not saving his three siblings from the coconut tree-sized waves;

The woman who will not sleep for fear she will be unable to escape another tsunami.

"I was talking to one fisherman who wants to get back to work, but he's a bit nervous about it. He said to me, 'Everything we have, the sea gave us - it is our livelihood. And everything we lost, the sea took away from us,' " Ratnarajah said. "What can you say to someone who has lost eight members of their family? All you can really do is listen."

Part of the doctors' counseling work was encouraging people to return to work and begin rebuilding their country. Both doctors said they plan to return to Sri Lanka to offer medical services and help with rebuilding efforts.

They said they are glad to be home, but will carry what they saw and learned for a long time. Samad called it "the most gratifying and rewarding experience" of his life.

"Even with my children, my whole attitude has changed. I'm much more patient with them," Ratnarajah said. "I just try to spend as much time with them while I can."

The Post-Standard, Syracuse, New York

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Posted February 15, 2005