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Museum Store Company Tsunami Relief Trip Sri Lanka 2005

UPDATE: Company Staff Returns from Sri Lanka Tsunami Medical Relief Mission.

"Not only did I lose my glasses, but I lost, my daughter, my wife, my home, my fishing boat…." 
 - LIS Clinic Patient, Matara, Sri Lanka


BACKGROUND: As many of you know, in late January, we were honored to join a medical relief mission to Sri Lanka with Lions in Sight. Lions in Sight (LIS) is an organization dedicated to providing eye care, examinations and eyeglasses through visiting relief teams and permanent clinics in developing nations. 

This relief trip was specifically organized for the needs of tsunami survivors of Sri Lanka, where LIS has in the past had permanent clinic locations. The trip was composed of 6 doctors and 6 support/dispensing staff.  Our mission was twofold -- to provide immediate clinical services to those in tsunami affected areas, as well as train local doctors and volunteers so exams and eyeglass dispensing could continue in a sustained effort after our team departed.   For this sustained effort, in the days before our arrival, LIS imported over 75,000 pairs of donated eyeglasses to Sri Lanka.

THE TRIP: On the 18th of February (we began our journey from Denver on the 16th), the full team of twelve finally all met up in the Hong Kong airport, which was only about half the journey. As a group we departed for Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where arriving at night and after 27 hours on planes (not including layovers in Hong Kong and Singapore) everyone was quite tired. On first impression (and quite understandably), Sri Lanka looked a lot like India -- but as I would later find out it is actually more different than I would have expected.  Anyway, Colombo, which is on the west coast, was mostly unaffected by the tsunami, however we were told that the sea did recede about 1 Kilometer, and the forthcoming surge returned at a height of 10 feet, but it did not do much damage to the city.   Anyway as for the group, at this time we were told that definite plans had not been made, but we were tentatively to break into two groups of 6 (3 doctors and 3 support) and travel to areas affected in the south, such as the town of Galle, but that all was to be decided at a meeting on the 17th.

THE MEETING: Our team and local Lions representatives met at The Colombo Plaza Hotel, where it was decided that, rather than send two teams south one would head south and one would head east.  The east of Sri Lanka is extremely neglected.  Years of civil war has left the east isolated and dangerous.  The roads are terrible, with a number of military checkpoints, and the drive is long.  The team heading east was looking at nine hours each way. Discussion of a helicopter ensued, but nothing came of this other than that team jovially being referred to as "team helicopter", from this point.  We were assigned to the team heading south, which was to hold 4 clinics at 4 different locations (all within 2 hours distance of each other) before traveling back.  We were given a 5 am wakeup call for the next morning and then headed off to lunch with USAID Sri Lanka Mission Director Carol Becker and USAID representative Lionel Jayarantne.  After lunch we went to sort and breakout pairs for our respective clinics from the 75,000 pairs of donated glasses imported the previous week.  For more information on donating glasses, please see below.

THE FIRST CLINIC:  Our clinic was to be held about two to three hours south of Colombo, at the ancestral home / plantation, of one of the Lion's representatives.  As mentioned, it was really early (5am) and dark when we departed on the coastal highway south out of Colombo.  We were all straining to see signs of damage in the darkness.  The ocean at times was less than 50 feet away, and at places there was a lot of rubble and stacks of material, but it was not until daylight that the damage could be seen.  And where there was damage it was dramatic, though in this area it was quite localized, whereby in one spot there would be only a concrete pad left, yet next to it a partially (or in some cases) fully standing structure.  Then you would drive through an area completely physically unaffected by the tsunami -- by distance from the ocean or a few meters of elevation; however, we were still on the west coast heading south, where the greatest destruction occurred (along with the utter devastation on the east coast).  Tents were visible among the rubble, and others were obviously living in partially destroyed structures.

We arrived at the clinic site around 8am - which was actually a cinnamon drying room on the plantation grounds - greeted by an already forming queue for eye exams and new glasses.  The heat and humidity was sweltering – we would all stay soaked for days, but this was also tough for those waiting in the queue for hours on end. Local volunteers, nurses and others helped us with admissions, translating for the doctors and dispensing the correct prescription from the donated glasses.  As with every clinic, the queue exceeded our abilities, but we also trained the local Lions volunteers so they could perform their own clinics in the near future.  UPDATE: We were told that the first clinic is planned in 2 weeks from our departure!  Anyway, the plantation was a few kilometers from the ocean and the water still came all the way up to the gate at our clinic site.

We saw our first patient sometime after 9am, and this continued throughout the day.  Those coming to the clinic are those in need to begin with, but here you would see the 75 year old grandmother, with a cast -- arm broken during the tsunami -- and the story we would hear time and time again in this and the other clinics, in one form or another:

"Not only did I lose my glasses, but I lost my daughter, my son, my wife, my husband, my home, my fishing boat…."

The clinic lasted until 6pm, and after seeing over 300 patients we then journeyed south to Galle.  The damage grew the further south we went.  Scattered tents became tent cities / refugee like camps.  The tent cities were very orderly grouped and arranged. The road south also paralleled the train tracks.  Around 7pm, we pulled off the road to see the recovered cars from the train, which as widely reported, was swept off the tracks along with its more than 1,500 occupants, who mostly perished.  Also the general destruction was greater.  Where the tsunami had struck, it looked like an area that had been heavily bombed.

Around 8pm, all very tired, we arrived at our hotel, which is also where some of the United Nations (UN) staff was staying along with the BBC correspondent Nick Bryant, who was there to cover Presidents Clinton and Bush Sr's visit to Matara, which is a town south of Galle.  They visited Matara on a Monday, we held a clinic there on Tuesday.

Clinic 2: On Monday, Clinic 2 was just north of Galle in a Buddhist Temple. This day, we saw more than 230 patients, many with the same story of loss.  One thing that surprised us all was the lack of children.  We thought we would see more children, but today and the previous day were mostly adults.

Clinic 3: On Tuesday, Clinic 3, was in Matara, at another Buddhist temple.  In this clinic we redoubled our efforts on training.  One thing which was a problem was the light, The temples were well lit with natural light, so these clinic required some preparation.   We saw over 200 people, but with the concentration on training Matara should be in good shape for future clinics with all the volunteers from the area that turned out.

Clinic 4: was our last clinic and only a partial day – we had to travel back to Colombo to rejoin the other team and fly out later that night.  Again it was held at a Buddhist temple, and here we were greeted with a large banner and a ceremony in the Temple.  Today was a Buddhist holiday, “Poya”, corresponding to the full moon.  One of the priests from the temple conducted a ceremonial prayer and then had us each light a part of a large standing lantern.  After the ceremony, back to business, where we conducted training and a clinic, seeing over 100 patients. 

We departed early in the afternoon for Colombo, arriving before the team from the east.  Team East - “Team Helicopter” – arrived with news of their journey and clinic successes.  Team East’s journey took them through military checkpoint after checkpoint on roads which makes a country road in the United States appear as a freeway by comparison, with armed military posts one kilometer apart through much of the journey through the troubled east.  Photos they showed to us looked like the land was washed clean of all structures in areas, as one team-member put it looked like and atomic bomb had gone off.

They spoke of mine sweeping being performed on the road in front of their bus, their very warm accompanying Sri Lankan Colonel Military Doctor, who now plans to do a clinic a month with the freshly trained volunteers from their clinics. They had great stories of survival from one of the local Lion builders who lost family but saved hundreds on his second floor of his house and in other buildings he had constructed. The two teams compared medical notes about specific patients as well as notable societal health trends from their exams.  Overall, in additional to our 850 patients, Team East saw approximately 650 people, during their 2 clinic days.

Later that night our team of twelve began the long trek back, knowing of the remaining tremendous need, but also knowing of the impact we had seeing the approximately 1,500 patients we did.  Clear sight and vision is so critical to daily life, and that was reinforced in smile after smile upon fitting someone with a pair of glasses, who has either never seen well before or as in many cases, hasn’t seen well since the tsunami.  On that note, I will end with the smile of a fisherman, who, "lost my home, my daughter and my wife".   We sent him away with two pairs of glasses, and the man was so dignified, thankful and happy – after losing everything, I don’t know how, but if nothing else it seemed to make him happy that he could see a bit better.

Best Regards,

Jon Fetzer


Museum Store Co - TheArtifact
222 Milwaukee St., Ste 101
Denver, CO  80206

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