A local pediatrician is working to save lives half-way around the world by raising money to rebuild a children's hospital in tsunami-battered Sri Lanka.
"Watching the footage of people on television, the disaster really hit close to home for me," said Dr. Priya Stephen, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente who has family ties to nearby Southern India. "I felt like that could have been my uncle or my cousin."
Those images prompted Stephen and three others, including her husband Benjamin and Dr. Kanishka Ratnayaka of Children's Hospital, to leave home for two weeks in February for the Sri Lankan capitol of Colombo. Five weeks after the wave that devastated coastal towns across the Pacific had sunk back into the sea, Stephen said the need for doctors remained high.
"Most of the stuff wasn't acutely related to the tsunami," said Stephen. "There were a lot of people who just had basic medical problems but couldn't get the help they needed."
Stephen and her team set up a rudimentary clinic across the street from a refugee camp. Within the first day, she said, they had tended to more than 300 patients.
"I handled a lot of asthmatics," said Stephen. "You couldn't get an asthma inhaler, and with the rubble, there was a lot of dust in the air. The only way to get one was to go into the city and pay a lot of money for it."
Yet some of the most touching moments for Stephen came during a visit to a pair of orphanages in Batticola, a region that has long seen turmoil, she said, from Sri Lanka's ongoing civil war.
"There had been political assassinations there the week before," she said. "There was a big military presence. The rebel groups, we'd heard, had really been very helpful in terms of getting aid to people within hours of when the tsunami hit."
Among the orphans, she said, were some former child soldiers.
"The orphanage was run like one big family," said Stephen.
Stephen's kindness even earned her a nickname, Priyaka, meaning "big sister."
"As soon as we got there, we were mobbed by young girls wanting to hold our hands," she said. "They wanted to hear all about us. I ended up running clinics at both orphanages there."
ALONG WITH THE cache of medical supplies Stephen and her companions brought to Sri Lanka was a collection of boots and backpacks that were handed out to the orphans. It was enough, she said, to supply about 1,000 children. But to bring about a lasting change in the lives of the children she and her team had managed to touch, the group is now organizing to raise money that will be used to rebuild a children's hospital in Matara, a city on Sri Lanka's southern tip.
"Part of our mission on the trip was to find such a project," said Stephen.
Built more than 100 years ago, said Stephen, the original hospital was already in poor condition when the wave crashed over the
nearby shoreline. In the surrounding area, she added, there are more than 1 million children.
"Our plan is to build something bigger and better than before, rather than just replace what was lost," she said.
Kaiser Permanente, according to spokeswoman Amy Nosal, has donated $25,000 to the hospital reconstruction effort.
The tsunami hit the island Dec. 26. According to the Sunday Observer, a Sri Lankan newspaper, the nation's death toll rose by more than 1,800 people in April due to a lack of clean water and medical services. The Sri Lankan death toll now stands at 128,715, with another 37,063 reported missing. Once the cause celeb for many, Stephen said she is worried the public's memory of the tsunami is starting to fade.
"People here are already starting to forget."