"We began to understand God sent us to help people who did not have access to health care, victims of a country in turmoil."


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Sri Lanka, a small island just southeast of India, is a country long plagued by civil war, political killings and unrest. As recently as August 12, 2005, Sri Lanka's popular foreign minister was assassinated.1


Sri Lanka was the second hardest-hit country by the tsunami of December 26, 2004, with 38,195 lost and millions more left in desperate need.2 While this disaster led to one of the largest relief efforts in history, people all over the world suffer from war, malnutrition, poor hygiene and disease. This journal shares one nurse's eye-opening experience of God's call to Christian nurses to be ministers of his healing gospel to a suffering world.


Getting Ready: A local physician and former resident of Sri Lanka was visiting family when the tsunami came crashing down. Upon his return I asked, "What can I do to help?" "Come back to Sri Lanka with me!!" From that moment on, we rushed to gather information and health care workers to serve at clinics in Sri Lanka. Eventually, our team of five physicians, four PAs, five RNs, three spouses and a water specialist registered with the International Medical Health Organization (IMHO), made flight arrangements and arranged for immunizations and contacts in Sri Lanka. All would pay their own way. We contacted local media, who interviewed us, and donations poured in.


A physician who had just returned from Sri Lanka met with us. He told us to be open-minded and advised, "Don't think you will arrive to a fool-proof plan."


March 18th [horizontal ellipsis] Day of Departure: Twenty-one hours after boarding a plane in New York City, we landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After checking in at the hotel, we registered with the Center for Healthcare (CHC). Even though we wanted to stay together, the CHC put us in three groups to go to Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincoma-lee.


Day Two [horizontal ellipsis] Sri Lanka: We woke early to go to the U.S. embassy. They warned us not to go to rebel-controlled areas of the country. We believed God had called us to go to the underserved, poor Tamil people. He would keep us safe.


Day Three [horizontal ellipsis] to the North and Northeast Coasts: One a.m. came too quickly, as we awoke to see the Ampara group leaving. Around three a.m., vans arrived to pack and take us to Batticaloa and Trincomalee.


At Batticaloa, elephants were eating garbage alongside emaciated cows. Monkeys played at the side of the road. Women carried baskets on their heads, and men in sarongs bicycled past. We signed in at the CHC office in Batticaloa, were briefed on our mission for the next day and toured tsunami-affected areas. The devastation was horrifying. Afterwards, the CHC took us to a private home with toilets and showers. We set up our sleeping mats and mosquito netting and talked about our plans for the clinic the next day.


Day Four [horizontal ellipsis] First Clinic Day: At 6:00 a.m., we heard loud clanging noises and blaring Hindu music. We packed supplies and waited for vans to take us to our first clinic.


The clinic was at a Muslim school. The children, neatly dressed in school uniforms, were playing cricket. Most had lost a parent in the tsunami. A young boy lost both parents and became the caregiver for his teenage, deaf and mute sister. As we set up our clinic, I blew soap bubbles for the children, who chased them and took turns blowing more bubbles, shrieking with laughter. I wanted to play all day but, it was time to see patients.


Each American physician/nurse team had a medical student interpreter from Jaffna assigned by the CHC. Through interpreters, patients recited their names and chief complaints.


As we examined patients, we recommended and recorded treatments on papers they brought with them. If patients needed medications, we sent them to our "pharmacist" (a medical student). If they had chest pain, we referred them to the cardiologist at the other end of the room. People had diabetes, gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD), parasites and body aches. If we started new meds, we asked patients to come back in one week to the next clinic. At 5:00 p.m., the medical students told us it was time to pack up and go. All patients had been seen.


Day Five [horizontal ellipsis] Paddyfield Clinic: My group went to Paddyfield clinic, a tsunami-affected area. People lived in tin storage sheds; sheets of black plastic separated families. The temperature and stench inside was incredible. I saw an elderly woman washing clothing in a mop bucket as she squatted in a corner. Sickly dogs with open sores struggled to stand.


Long lines of people formed. The soldiers also came for health care. Malnutrition, poor hygiene and sanitation were pervasive. How can you help people who do not have food or clean water? Poor dentition was prominent. We taught people how to brush their teeth and passed out toothbrushes. We improvised needed equipment. The day sped by despite the blazing sun.


Day Six [horizontal ellipsis] Batticaloa Teaching Hospital: IVs hung in glass bottles. Old tubular steel-framed beds were lined up in wards. Nurses wore starched uniforms and stood when a physician approached. Patients' charts and x-rays, were kept at the end of the bed; patients kept these for future use. The sickest patients were assigned beds. As they were discharged, the next sickest patients on chairs were offered beds. Then the next sickest patients, lying on the floor, were invited to chairs. Female nurses treated patients in male and female wards; male nurses only treated male patients.


The dirt and debris of construction was several feet away from patients' beds. Flies were everywhere. Patients dressed in their own clothing; family; members slept under beds. A mother fanned her severely burned, small child. A post-operative patient lay in a bed between a pre-operative patient and one who had pneumonia. A sign hanging outside the operating theater had a "no machine guns" insignia.


The next clinic was not affected by the tsunami. We began to understand God sent us to help people who did not have access to health care.


Day 7 [horizontal ellipsis] Easter Sunday: We were eager to work, but the medical students wanted to join their families. We attended Easter mass. Even though we could not understand the language, we followed along, received Holy Communion and were wished Happy Easter in English. We felt God's Spirit.


Day 8 [horizontal ellipsis] Karadanar Maga Vi Di Layoun: This clinic, in the middle of nowhere, was positioned in military territory. People walked for miles to reach us. We saw malnutrition, stomach problems, worms, respiratory infections, chest pain, body aches and skin infections. It was after 7:00 p.m. before we packed up.


Suddenly, a medical student announced the military commander wanted to speak to us. We were taken to a large compound with chairs lined up in a circle under a tree and armed guards in the periphery. A man came out and poured tea. Shortly afterward, the commander addressed us. With relief, we learned he was thanking us for coming and asked us to tell others to come. We breathed a prayer of thanks as we drove off in the near darkness.


That night a colleague woke me, saying, "There was another earth-quake!! They are concerned about another tsunami!!" People up to 200 meters from the coast were being evacuated. In the morning, everyone else toured the hospital; I stayed and packed supplies, waiting for the van to pick me up. Due to the tsunami warning, the CHC cancelled the clinic, and the van never came. My chance to help was over.


Leaving: Tears streamed down my face as our plane left at 3:15 a.m. Back in New York with heavy hearts, we loaded a bus at the airport and drove home in pouring rain. God had opened my eyes, showing me my purpose to be a minister of his healing gospel and to further his work through health care ministry.


1 Sri Lanka News Update. Accessed at on August 26, 2005. [Context Link]


2 The Southeast-Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog. Accessed at on August 26, 2005. [Context Link]