Two medical professors from the UC Davis Medical Center recently returned from a trip to Sri Lanka where their mission was one often overlooked – helping the helpers.
Tissa Kappagoda, a cardiologist, and Doug Cort, a psychologist, made separate but overlapping trips to Sri Lanka in July, specifically, to the southern city of Galle.
Cort and his wife, Linda Aaron-Cort, went to the tsunami-devastated island to work with mental health professionals by providing encouragement and support to those psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors whose jobs have been helping others survive long-term consequences of December’s natural disaster.
Kappagoda, 62, is a native of Sri Lanka who went to Galle and Colombo to visit two medical schools and the students whose lives and studies were cruelly interrupted when the tsunami hit.
“The medical school (in Galle) was on the ocean’s edge,” he said. “The hospital got wiped out and the students were hard hit.”
Three students died in the tsunami and nine students lost both parents.
The medical school’s dormitories needed to be completely refurbished but the traumatized students didn’t want to return to those buildings. Temporary accommodations for 52 medical students were found in three large homes.
Kappagoda helped raise $10,000 from UCD students and colleagues and students on other campuses in order to pay for scholarships so the orphaned students could finish their studies. More than $2,500 was raised from students at the University of Illinois School of Medicine.
Kappagoda, who lives in Sacramento, said people in this area, too, have been very generous, knowing that he makes regular trips to Sri Lanka.
“I have a garage full of medical supplies donated by a Lake Tahoe hospital,” he said.
And several UC Davis fraternities raised more than $700 for him in a poker tournament that took place winter quarter.
UCD student Anson Tharayanil, 21, was born in Charlottesville, Va., of East Indian parents. Last winter, he read about Kappagoda’s proposed trip and decided to do something to help.
“Tsunami relief was a very pressing issue at the time and a personal issue for me, too, as I have cousins in India who live along the coastline,” he said.
Tharayanil also was the philanthropy chair at the Sigma Chi fraternity. He organized the card tournament after seeing a newspaper article about Kappagoda’s plans to help medical students continue their education. Combining poker with a worthy cause seemed like just the thing to do.
Tharayanil says the poker tournament was so successful that other student groups have used it as a model for subsequent fund-raisers.
Kappagoda was very appreciative of the fraternity’s fund-raising strategy.
“He is a very nice guy,” said Kappagoda about his poker-playing friend.
Meanwhile, Cort said more than $7,000 was raised separately from family, friends and colleagues – and more money is still coming in – to pay for his trip and donate to local charities on the ground in Sri Lanka.
“When I saw the news about the tsunami I felt a strong drive to do something,” said Cort, 55, who lives in Benicia. “My life is good, my children are grown, my career is secure and I felt a certain connection with the country of Sri Lanka.”
Cort said he had visited Sri Lanka several times with Kappagoda in order to teach at the local medical school, University of Ruhuna (www.ruh.ac.lk)
On his most recent trip in July, he directed his lectures at exhausted caregivers, stressed from months of living in the aftermath of a disaster.
“Primarily we worked with caregivers – from psychiatrists to occupational therapists – to help patients and themselves,” he said. His wife, a creative arts therapist, also gave lectures on expressive therapies such as drawing and dance.
Cort said a tremendous amount of destruction remains visible on the ground in Sri Lanka. Debris has been pushed aside but not removed, ruined boats still litter the shoreline.
“It looks like a war zone,” he said.
“Clearly, this was a monumental disaster,” he added. “People are living in tents and shacks not much bigger than an outhouse.”
Cort said he tried to help on two levels – by providing professional support in the form of lectures on dealing with trauma and anger – and by providing personal emotional support.
“These are young professionals with their own problems who also are trying to help others,” Cort said.
He said many of the local caregivers he dealt with were bitter and disappointed in the global lack of assistance, telling him that the World Health Organization had promised to send aid but had not.
“The fact that we were there made a statement and it was appreciated,” he said. “We listened to them in ways they had not been listened to before.”
After giving lectures at the hospital, which he described as “very primitive and crowded, shocking,” he said that it was wonderful to be able to return to their small hotel. However, they were practically the hotel’s only customers for the several weeks they were in Galle.
He met members of a small international aid community in the city but said the need continues to far outweigh the resources.
Cort said most of the doctors and residents he worked with spoke English and were very astute, soaking up all his lectures and coming over to the hotel on the weekends to talk some more.
“It was a very productive trip, in tangible and intangible ways,” he said.
Kappagoda is planning to return to Sri Lanka before the end of the year. He has medical supplies to deliver, the welfare of medical students to check on, and he wants to assist in helping build an orphanage near Galle.
“The big picture is enormous and there’s nothing I can do,” said Kappagoda. “All I can do is little things like helping students and helping with the orphanage.” Members of a local Hindu temple also are helping the orphanage.
“And there’s still a great need for mental health professionals,” he added.
--Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at firstname.lastname@example.org