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SOS Malta clinic up and running

Posted Date: 17/01/2005

The SOS Malta team operating in Matara, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, outside the Immaculate Conception School where their clinic is located. From left: Dr David Galea, Dr Vanessa Saliba, team leader David Grech, Dr Rachel Attard. Picture: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Multi-coloured sarees billow in the wind as they hang over the doors and windows of a classroom on the ground floor of the Immaculate Conception school. It lends a touch of colour to a scene dominated by grey mud.

In stark contrast, perched on top of a crucifix overlooking the school courtyard, is a huge ominous-looking black crow, surveying all the activity below - activity such as large numbers of local towns people streaming into the medical clinic that has just become operational.

The SOS Malta clinic in the Sri Lankan town of Matana is finally up and running.

Matana, a sizeable town on the south coast of the island, suffered severe damage when the tsunamis struck almost three weeks ago. A total of 1,216 people died there, over 8,000 were injured and some 400 remain missing. Latest figures show 17,679 people being displaced from their homes.

It took a while for the SOS Malta team to set up base camp as it was essential that they find an area where they could be effective and Matana seemed ideal. They are running the clinic, visit local displaced people, sometimes mistakenly referred to as refugees, in the many camps that have sprung up all over the place, and operate mobile clinics, taking the medical aid to the people instead of just waiting for the people to come to the clinic for help.

The school had 2,100 students - several of the older ones are now working as interpreters for the team, while the school's network of families has become the initial client base for the team. The only advertising is word of mouth and a sign in Singhalese saying there is a medical centre on site. On the first day of operation, long queues formed and the team members did not leave the clinic till 10 p.m.

The clinic is basic, catering to basic medical needs - a large classroom with a medicine cabinet, chairs, three tables, an examination couch and a rudimentary privacy screen, all surrounded by the swirling colours of the sarees draped over the windows.

Team Leader David Grech, a 29-year-old nurse who is no stranger to this sort of work, feels it would have been better had an advance party been sent to the country prior to the whole team and aid arriving.

"Such a group could have set up base, made contacts with local people and authorities, though I must add that Mgr Philip Calleja and Claudia Taylor East had already managed to do heaps in that respect," Mr Grech explained.

"However, it would have been so helpful if such a team had handled all the red tape we faced. Getting the medicines into the country took three days of wasting precious time at the airport. In addition, before the authorities would give us permission to operate, they wanted to know where we'd be working. They didn't want us in the north, partly for our own safety, but also because their main concern remains the affected areas in the south."

It took several days for the medicine to be transported to the clinic from Colombo. There was no point in transporting it before suitable secure storage facilities could be found.

Vanessa Saliba, 23, a newly graduated medical doctor, beams enthusiasm at being able to be involved in a venture of this kind. She immediately accepted an offer to join the team as she would love a career with an agency such as the World Health Organisation or Medicin sans Frontier. This provides her with the much-needed experience one needs to work for the big guns in this area.

"People here want to talk," she explains. "They want psychological attention. We haven't seen any emergency cases as those have all been dealt with. People are traumatised, they're scared of the sea, won't go to the beach even though they've lived by the sea all their lives. They knew it, trusted it but not any more."

I looked out at the sea across the road, where the army is clearing away rubble and debris. The sea is getting rougher and I'm told the tide is lower than normal. That reminds them of the prelude to the terror that shattered their lives and it frightens them. Later on, I walked along the beach, strewn with debris and an extraordinary amount of shoes scattered all around. Who knows where their owners are now, I ask myself. I came across the remains of a two-foot high wall that once ran the entire length of the beach. That was protection against the waves that sometimes rolled up to the road. It seems like a rather pathetic piece of construction now, so puny and helpless against the might of the tsunami!

Up by the road, overlooked by a Maltese flag the team has proudly hung on the side of the school, the Sri Lankan army is using bulldozers to clear away tons of debris.

I returned to the clinic. Mr Grech was applying fresh bandages to a woman's leg, Dr Saliba was talking to a patient with the vital help of an interpreter, while 24-year-old Rachel Attard, known to all as Sascha, performed a close examination on a patient's eye. Like her colleague, she's also a newly graduated doctor. She had a moment's hesitation before agreeing to join the team but has no regrets.

"It's a brilliant opportunity," she enthused. "I wanted to do my bit to help and I really believe we're doing that. We work well as a team and are doing a great job. These people are telling us that we do make a difference to their lives."

Meanwhile, the most experienced doctor in the team, David Galea, is lending a hand at the nearby town of Dondra. An Irish team from Ulster Hospital has only one doctor and could not cope with the flow of patients it was receiving and needed some extra help.

Dr Galea has just celebrated his 28th birthday - he spent it at Colombo airport in a frustrating wait for the medical supplies to be released from Customs. Normally specialising in psychiatry at Mount Carmel Hospital, he can clearly see the signs of trauma in most of the people passing through the clinics.

"You can't treat that sort of thing easily," he explains. "There's the barrier of culture and language and the doctor/patient relationship you need is lost when you have to communicate through an interpreter. A lot of the physical ailments they're complaining about are actually caused by the psychological trauma they've suffered. Physical injuries will heal with time but their psyche is a different matter and the healing process can take years. What's needed is a long term sustainable counselling programme that's appropriate for their culture."

Dr Galea has been impressed by the nature of the people he's come across. "You can sense their spirituality. This is a country divided by religion but its people have all opened their homes to each other. They're helping each other rebuild, they're getting on with it. I can't see something like that happening in Europe."

Mr Grech feels that by the time they have to return to Malta, in the first week of February, they'd be ready to hand over the clinic and the medical supplies to the local health authorities. By then, the health system will be up and running again and the hospitals would no longer be inundated with tsunami victims.

"But our presence here is needed," he stressed, "We did the right thing in coming."

Mr Zammit Lupi travelled to Sri Lanka courtesy of Emirates Airlines.


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