India’s successful surgical strike against congenital heart disease in Sri Lanka

A poetic justice indeed, that perhaps the only news picked up by the antennas of the CPC-PLA ship which has just departed after making its way to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, must have been that of successful joint India-Sri Lanka ‘surgical strike’ – against congenital heart disease in the nearby island nation of Batticaloa! Life-saving surgeries for these unfortunate children have been delayed by the unprecedented crisis on all fronts that has engulfed Sri Lanka; and Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani of India, the only hospital chain dedicated to cardiac care for children in the world offering completely free services, seized the opportunity. Against all odds, Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Hospital, Sri Lanka was prepared and inaugurated in Batticaloa, just on the east coast of Hambantota. Much to parents’ relief, children’s heart surgeries are set to begin in his new operating room by Dr. Ragini Pandey and his surgical team at Sanjeevani of Raipur, India.

After establishing the South Pacific’s first children’s cardiac care hospital without a billing section, in Fiji in April 2022, Sanjeevani’s next global footprint has been in the struggling island nation of Sri Lanka. On August 9, at a simple ceremony in the humble hamlet of Dharmapuram in Batticaloa, home to 30,000 war widows and their children, Aravinda de Silva, who scripted Sri Lanka’s cricket victory in the World Cup world in 1996, inaugurated the Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Hospital in Sri Lanka established by the Sri Sathya Sai Karunanilyam Foundation. Good Samaritans from around the world, led by the social and spiritual leader, Sadguru Sri Madhusudan Sai of India, scholars from the University of the East of Sri Lanka, representatives of the Sri Lankan armed forces and government and the Consul General of the Indian High Commission were present at the inauguration. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has conveyed his government’s sincere gratitude to Sadguru Sri Madhusudan Sai who leads the international community at the helm of the mission. The first phase of the hospital consists of a 28-bed children’s cardiac care wing to provide life-saving surgery to Sri Lankan children with congenital heart disease; literally a gift of life.

The history of Sanjeevani, Sri Lanka dates back to the eighties. S. Tharmaratnam, a kind UN official from Sri Lanka, moved by the plight of women widowed by civil war and their children, donated land on the coast of Batticaloa and built fifty houses there with help from the local Catholic Church. Unfortunately, just before handing over the project, he succumbed to a heart attack. It fell to his son, T. Sutharshanom, barely out of his teens, to take care of business. The grieving beneficiaries of the project named the settlement Dharmapuram in memory of his father.

Sutharshanom became a chartered accountant in the Far East, but his heart was still in Dharmapuram. He and his wife, Selena, of Chinese descent, were part of a group that supported the service activities of Sathya Sai Baba, sometimes described as “the God of the poor”; for all his initiatives were aimed at the poor and needy. A few years ago, Sutharshanom learned that Baba’s students led by a mystic, now known as Sadguru Madhusudan Sai, were starting similar service initiatives after Baba passed away. He met Sri Madhusudan Sai and implored him to help the women and children of Dharmapuram and offered the family estate of one hundred acres.

Fifty acres of land was accepted and the Sri Sathya Sai Karunanilayam Foundation was established, with the help of like-minded Sri Lankans such as Penelope Jayawardene, Deepal Wickremasinghe, Nisantha Dissanayake and Hettiarachchige Marie Gunawardana. The Foundation, supported by others including tea planter and solar energy manufacturer Gary Seaton of Australia and his team, has rendered invaluable service to the needy, especially marginalized women and children.

Under the aegis of the Foundation, the pupils of the primary school of Dharmapuram were served breakfast every day. In addition, everywhere in Batticaloa, since September 2015, bananas and milk are served daily to primary school students in addition to the breakfast provided by the government. Ironically, it was in 2017 – the very year when debt-ridden Sri Lanka unfortunately had to mortgage the territory of Hambantota Port to its creditor, that the Sri Sathya Sai Karunalayam Medical Center was born in Batticaloa, under the leadership of Sadguru Madhusudan Sai from India, offering help through free health services. To date, more than 16,000 patients have been treated, completely free of charge.

The medical center became the talk of the town as patients received the best of treatments with compassion; they were greeted with a hot cup of tea and given a delicious, nutritious, freshly prepared meal before heading home. Gradually, other specialized units were added. Some children who came for treatment suffered from congenital heart disease. Some of them were operated on at Colombo Children’s Hospital and others were airlifted to Sathya Sai Sanjeevani in India; all free of charge.

This experience brought the Karunanilayam team face to face with the fact that congenital heart disease was the leading cause of childhood death in Sri Lanka. Every year, about 3,000 Sri Lankan children are born with congenital heart disease. Many succumb to it because surgery in private hospitals is prohibitively expensive; and treatment at the national free public hospital, Lady Ridgewood Hospital (LRH), Colombo, means a wait of 6 to 18 months. LRH struggles with 10,000 to 12,000 new referrals each year, in addition to having to manage 20,000 follow-up patients. Although LRH has 900 beds, it only has 45 cardiothoracic ward beds and 14 cardiothoracic ICU beds. The lack of human resources and infrastructure is a permanent problem.

The Karunanilayam team therefore decided to expand Dharmapuram Hospital into a tertiary care hospital, with pediatric cardiac facilities following the Sathya Sai Sanjeevani model. Sanjeevani shared the know-how. Work, which began in June 2019, has accelerated as kind people like the Anugraham Trust from the UK have provided funding. The pandemic, however, brought the work to a halt. The team then set about providing lunch and medicine to all the needy around; more than 32,000 lunches were distributed to be precise. Just as things picked up again, came the devastating economic crisis that is still gripping the island nation. But, as C. Sreenivas, who leads Sanjeevani globally, has said, “Man’s adversity is God’s opportunity.” The Karunanilayam team continued stubbornly; because the delay in getting the hospital started would dash the hopes of parents of children who needed urgent surgery to survive. LRH not only graciously guided Sanjeevani Sri Lanka through formalities and paperwork, but also assisted with child screening to select those in need of urgent surgery. Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon Dr Ragini Pandey and the team from Sanjeevani Raipur arrived by plane on August 1, 2022, determined to do their best to save these children, when nothing but uncertainty hung in the air.

Overcoming all the challenges, a state-of-the-art pediatric cardiac operating room, intensive care unit and step-down intensive care unit, and 28 dedicated pediatric cardiac beds were prepared for the inauguration. The rest of the aesthetically designed 99,000 square foot, 75 bed Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Multi Specialty Hospital is nearly ready and awaiting commissioning later this year after all procedural formalities, will have separate blocks for outpatients and inpatients; a 2,500 square foot canteen to serve free food to all outpatients and their loved ones, and physicians’ quarters and support services buildings. General medicine, gynecology, paediatrics, dentistry, ophthalmology and gastroenterology units will now have additional inpatient facilities; and all services will continue to be offered absolutely free of charge in this hospital.

During the inauguration, a memorandum of collaboration was also exchanged between the Karuna Nilayam Foundation and the University of Eastern Sri Lanka, represented by Vice-Chancellor Dr Kanakasingham to advance sociocare initiatives, research on public health issues and promote local traditional nutrition solutions for children and integrated health solutions for non-communicable diseases. To begin with, during the inauguration, locally prepared traditional food parcels were offered to pregnant women and toddlers in the community.

For women in Dharmapuram, Sanjeevani means more jobs and a better life. For children with congenital heart disease and their desperate parents, the hospital is a godsend. For the Sanjeevani team, LRH supporters and international volunteers, all inspired by the thought of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the world is one family – this is one more opportunity to love everyone and serve everyone. A visible example – a poor couple carrying their sick child, hitchhiking on foot and in trucks bringing building materials to the hospital site as public transport all but came to a standstill in this country in lack of fuel. They were lovingly put up in a hotel by Sanjeevani. Indeed, as the little ones wait for surgery and their parents arrive, they are cared for in the Sanjeevani spirit of “Rogi Narayana Hari” (the patient is God); even as the surgical team, ready to operate, awaits final clearance from a grateful government to begin their noble task. Clearly, compassion beyond the call of duty is at the heart of this “surgical strike” in Sri Lanka.

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Christine E. Phillips