By Sarah Hannan
With the Trail Cancer Hospital being open to the public at the Tellippalai Base Hospital, the people of the north now have better access to a state-of-the-art treatment centre in the heart of the Jaffna District.
We arrived at the Tellippalai Base Hospital on Saturday 18 January, at the time preparations were underway for the grand opening the next day and all the medical equipment, beds and mattresses were being wheeled down to each ward. Trail initiators - Director of Colours of Courage Trust Nathan Sivagananathan and CEO MAS Linea Aqua Sarinda Unamboowe; Director/ Medical Superintendent of Tellippalai Base Hospital Dr. M. Umashankar and Tehani Renganathan stepped-up to provide a familiarisation tour of the hospital.
Entering the newly built premises I noticed that the facilities were placed in a way to provide more breathing space and during the day a lot of sunlight is allowed into the wards making it less claustrophobic. The hospital beds were placed in a manner to allow personal space for the patients as well. The paediatric ward looked very lively with paintings; a colourful indoor play area equipped with a library, TV and a computer; and an outdoor play area which makes a stay at the hospital a more fun experience for the children.
The service areas of each ward are separated by a corridor which includes a drying space and every ward gets two service areas with a laundry area with a washing machine, bathing area and toilets with disability access as well. Today the Trail Cancer Hospital can accommodate up to 120 patients in four wards dedicated to paediatric, male and female patients. Apart from that an outpatient department chemotherapy area, pharmacy and rest room for doctors and nurses in each ward are also made available. The hospital also has its own auditorium which will serve the purpose of carrying out awareness sessions and workshops about cancer and training sessions as well.
History of the Tellipalai Base Hospital
Tellippalai Base Hospital Director Dr. M. Umashankar having served at the Base Hospital for over 20 years took his time to describe the history of the hospital and its operations: “In the wake of the civil war all public services were disrupted in Jaffna and the Tellipalai Base Hospital, with a lot of difficulties, functioned as a mobile hospital from 1990 to 2011. The Ponnampalam Radiation Therapy Unit was established in 2005 to provide treatment for cancer patients in the area and it was the only unit of the Base Hospital which functioned even though the area was demarcated as a high security zone.
The patients diagnosed with cancer in the north were always referred to this unit and patients had to walk up to the checkpoints and from there the army had to escort them to the hospital premises. Due to limited resources patients were then referred to the Maharagama Cancer Hospital for further treatment. During war time, patients were sent to Maharagama with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They were taken to Kankesanthurai or Trincomalee and were then sent to Colombo by air or sea. But due to the financial difficulties, language barriers and lack of accommodation, while their loved ones underwent treatment in Maharagama, most of these families did not opt in to travel to Maharagama. With the Trail Cancer Hospital opening up these families can be treated at a more familiar environment closer to home.”
Trail was initiated by two individuals who jammed their ideas together to come up with the walk from Dondra Head to Point Pedro, which would end up raising sufficient funds to build a cancer hospital in the Jaffna Peninsula.
“At the final stages of war I made a promise to my friends that should the war end I would walk from Matara to Jaffna. The war ended and then I had to keep my promise and I then decided that this should not be just a walk but should give back something to the community. Friends had various suggestions and; collecting 1 million signatures during the walk and raising funds for the Uthuru Mithuru railway line were among those suggestions. But they didn’t seem convincing enough until Nathan suggested that we raise funds to build a cancer hospital in Jaffna. Trail was implemented with these two intentions coming together,” Sarinda explained.
At the beginning, Trail had set up a target of raising $ 1 million but the two Trail initiators decided that hey raise it up to $ 2 million considering the duo’s corporate connections. At the end of Trail the team had fallen short by the actual target but considering the donations that came in the form of hospital beds, medical equipment and the sale of Trail merchandise and other fund raising initiatives carried out through Trail Colours of Courage Trust and the www.trailsl.com web page, the target was exceeded and even after the walk ended more funds were coming through.
Over a span of two years the hospital was built and 100% of the funds raised through Trail have been utilised for the construction of the hospital and administration costs borne by corporate funding. A four acre land was also donated by two individuals Manickasothy Abimannasingam from Uduvil and “Kalvikkarunyan” Lion E.S.P. Nagaratnam, PMJF who purchased small plots around the Tellipalai Base Hospital and had donated it to Trail. Another piece of land was donated by the Government as well.
For Nathan, the initiation of Trail was more personal: “Trail started off small with the view of eradicating cancer and creating awareness among communities through various mediums. I lost my sister to cancer seven years ago and I was determined to provide people with access to proper treatment for cancer since then, and had the idea of building a cancer hospital in Jaffna. Sarinda’s idea of the walk gave me an opportunity to team up with his to raise funds for the cause.”
Sustaining the project
A hospital is built and the necessary infrastructure is in its place but maintaining the hospital from then onwards is always a challenge, as from Sunday onwards the Trail Cancer Hospital will be functioning as a 100% government hospital. When asked as to how they would sustain the project in future, Nathan and Sarinda responded that Colours of Courage Trust will function as a maintenance fund for the hospital along with the funding it provides the Maharagama Cancer hospital’s Surgical ICU and Medical ICU. “Apart from that A&E Threads have committed to donate a rupee from each of the thread poles that are sold. This easily provides funds up to Rs. 12 million every quarter that would cover the maintenance costs. Colours of Courage Trust is also the legal entity of Trail which has eight trustees and all funds are collected through the trust,” Nathan and Sarinda stated.
A “Trail Blazer’s” story
Twelve individuals who are categorised as Trail Blazers walked the entire stretch of 670 kilometres from Dondra Head to Point Pedro in a span of 27 days. Eshan Tudawe, a young and energetic employee of MAS, was among them. Similar to Nathan, Eshan too had lost one of his loved ones to cancer and joined the walk as a mark of respect: “I consider myself as an adventurous person and a nature trekker. I think everyone in Sri Lanka has encountered at least one case of cancer in their families. My mother’s first cousin Rohan Wijeratne was one of the people I looked up for and he succumbed to cancer at the age of 49. The thought of walking for a cause was a great experience and having friends, family, and colleagues cheering for you along the walk poured in a massive amount of energy.”
Adding his thoughts Sarinda said: “I thought that during the 27 day walk I would have time to sit alone and reflect on the day’s activities and on life but not a moment passed where we were not surrounded by people who joined in from every part of Sri Lanka to cheer us.”
The organising committee had only around 20-30 people in mind who they thought would join the opening but the event turned out to be a massive one with over 30,000 people joining in during the trail. “The response we received from each township and village we passed created a massive hype and encouraged us to continue our trail for the 27 days.”
According to Eshan this was the first time he had gone beyond Anuradhpura and it was a special moment in his life as he walked all that way from south to the northernmost point of Sri Lanka on foot. “The trail in the south was scenic every day we would start off as early as 5 a.m. and the shades of dawn along the sea side would just take our minds off the aches and pains we had from the previous day. We were blessed by Buddhist, Hindu, Christian priests and Islamic clerics along the way and some of them had arranged poojas and welcome ceremonies to receive us.”
The walkers had some unique experiences along the way and during the first days they came across a banana seller in Weligama who had asked the reason for their walk and then had given out fruits for all the walkers at that time.
Eshan, though not a big fan of manioc, had consumed it for the first time with kochchi sambol as the team was offered manioc and kochchi sambol in Thambuttegama as they passed a ‘dhansala’ during a Poya day. “That was just delicious,” Eshan stated.
When the team was passing a remote area just before Anuradhapura, they were donated with mineral water bottles and Eshan said considering the area, clean drinking water would have been a luxury for those villagers but they had decided to donate some of it to the walkers.
On the day Mahela Jayawardena joined the walk; a kid had donated his till to Mahela and joined him for a walk of 20 kilometres. Later Mahela had informed the team that it was a great moment and walking in close proximity to the people from the area was a great experience.
In Mankulam, after spotting the group of walkers, three girls had come to the road and Eshan had approached them to collect their contributions. The girls had handed over Rs. 120 and then Eshan had looked around to see where they lived. Sighting the temporary house with a tarpaulin roof Eshan had asked them to keep the money. But the girls had insisted that he take the money as it was for a worthy cause. Since then the Trail team had made it a point to stop over at this house every time they go to the north and also provide funds on a monthly basis for the education of these girls.
“What I learnt from this walk was that the people are good and irrespective of their diversity they donated towards a worthy cause which was fulfilling. On the road to reconciliation this initiative proved that people are willing to put away their differences to live in peace. Trail was joined by sports personalities, actors, corporate giants and celebrities as well and they had a role to play in igniting this project. It gave a ballistic view of the social aspects where everyone became a part of the project,” Eshan reiterated.
Volunteering for a cause
An employee of MAS Silhouettes Kulasingham Kularanjan volunteered to ensure the health and safety aspects of the walkers. He had walked for 15 days and then was given the duties of organising media coverage, building public relations with the communities in the North Central and Northern Provinces. “During the last one and a half months of the construction process of this hospital, Nathan requested me to assist with the coordination and administration of duties at the site. I would work three days in Tellippalai and then go back to the factory premises for the next two days. I was supposed to hand over the building by 16 January but was delayed by two days due to a gale in the area. I had a team of 12 people who assisted me with the coordination work and I promised Nathan that I will volunteer to maintain the facility for the next six months where I would dedicate about two days each month to administrate the maintenance process. I must also say that the Army has been very cooperative and at the commencement of the project they volunteered to fill the land and strengthen the foundation of this hospital.
A global connectivity
The project committee at the end of the fund raiser was quite surprised to learn that over 1,000 accounts were created on the www.trailsl.com website to collect funds across the globe. Donations were pouring in not only from Sri Lankans living abroad but their friends and organisations as well. To date, the website has connections with over 12,000 individuals and each quarter an update is sent via email to them.
“We cannot forget the organisers who ensured the safety of the walkers and coordinating everything during the 27 day period. We would like to thank each and every one who were apart of this project. I would specially like to mention the team from A&E who set up points to distribute water for all the walkers as they were the first to rise and last to go to sleep each day.
Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera