Neglect or accident?

Eight-year-old Asanka Pradeep, who is both mentally retarded and physically disabled, now lies on a bed in Ward 23 of the Ragama Teaching Hospital, with his left hand amputated just above the wrist.

No stringent state control

National Child Protection Authority Chairman, Prof. Harendra de Silva said the need is to ascertain whether it was accidental or whether there was neglect in a case like this.

"The Social Service Officers carry out periodic checks at this home and we have not encountered any problems before this," says the Wattala Divisional Secretary under whose purview the home falls.

On the recommendation of the Social Service Officers, the Department of Social Services of the Western Provincial Council provides Rs. 300 monthly for each person being looked after by Prithipura. However, as it is run as a voluntary service organization, with only a small contribution from the state, there is no stringent state control.

What led to the amputation? Was it a bona fide accident or neglect by the caregivers of the Prithipura Infants' Home in Hendala, Wattala? This is what the police are trying to ascertain.

"This has many aspects. It is not a simple open and shut case. Investigations are underway to find out what happened," says OIC Sheila Attanayake of the Women's and Children's Bureau of the Kelaniya Division under which Prithipura comes.

The police have recorded the statements of the management of the home and the 26-year-old "housemother" who was looking after Asanka. They are also collecting medical and other information before forwarding the file to the Attorney General's Department for instructions.

The incident had taken place on the morning of April 10. "Asanka cannot do anything on his own, he is suffering from multiple disabilities. He puts his fingers in his mouth and from the statements recorded I gather that they usually bandage his hand to prevent this. On April 10, they forgot to remove the bandage after a while," says OIC Attanayake. Then they showed him to the home's doctor and later, on April 16, took him to the Apollo Hospital.

"What was the housemother's intention? Was it good or bad?" asks Wattala OIC, Chief Inspector Sena Suraweera who initiated inquiries on a complaint made by the Apollo Hospital in Colombo.

The child had been in the habit of putting all his fingers into his mouth. This had led to many infections and flies hovering around his face. The people looking after Asanka had been in the practice of bandaging his hand to prevent this. On this particular day they had done it too tightly, says Inspector Suraweera.

When The Sunday Times contacted the Prithipura Infants' Home, its management refused to comment until police investigations are concluded.

The Sunday Times learns that Prithipura Home started in 1964, has about 80 mentally retarded and physically disabled people ranging in age from six years to 50 years. The plight of Asanka who is severely handicapped (both mentally and physically) and bedridden, unable to sit, stand or speak is pathetic because he had been abandoned at the Ragama Teaching Hospital, before being brought to Prithipura.

When Apollo Hospital contacted the police, OIC Attanayake had gone to the home where Asanka had been brought back after being discharged, and taken him to the Ragama Teaching Hospital.

Apollo Hospital's Director of Medical Services, Dr. Rohith Sharma confirmed that a patient by the name of Asanka, 8, was admitted on April 16 and discharged on April 19. "When he was brought in the doctors noticed that the fingers of the left hand had turned black. Gangrene had set in and there was no alternative but to amputate his hand just above the wrist," he said.

When seeking admission the reason given by those who brought Asanka had been "accidental entrapment of wrist by a rubber band two weeks previously".

Whenever there is a doubt about the circumstances of an accident, the doctors treat it as a medico-legal case. "Thus we informed the Wattala Police," said Dr. Sharma.

As this tragic case stands now, Asanka who is in a stable condition, has been shown to Ragama JMO Dr. Ananda Samarasekera. "If and when the courts instruct me I will provide an independent report," he says declining to reveal his findings.

Leaving aside the police investigation, which is trying to find out whether there was an intention to harm, what needs to be looked at is what should be done for Asanka. The issue that requires an immediate answer is: What of his future?

Everest: 50 years after Summit of the gods

In 1953, a wiry New Zealander and his diminutive Nepalese companion hauled themselves up and stood on the "symmetrical, beautiful snow-cone summit" of the tallest mountain on earth.

Fifty years later, Britain's Royal Geographical Society is marking the anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's conquest with a book of more than 300 images of Mount Everest drawn from the Society's photographic archives and tracing more than a century of attempts to ascend the mighty peak.

According to Everest: Summit of Achievement, it all began in 1852, at the headquarters of the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India at Dehra Dun, 140 kilometres north of Delhi. Radhanath Sikdhar, the head of computations, burst into the office of Superintendent General Andrew Waugh and announced that he had discovered the highest mountain in the world!

In the midst of the Himalayan mountain chain between Tibet and Nepal, he said, one peak towered 8839 metres above sea level (in 1999, the latest satellite technology put the height at 8850 metres).

In fact, Sikdhar's calculations were the culmination of at least 50 years work measuring and surveying the topography of the entire Indian continent, including the towering Himalayan peaks to the north.

And, with typical imperial hauteur, Waugh promptly proposed naming Peak XV after Colonel George Everest, his predecessor and the man who had started the survey.
This came as news to the Tibetan locals who lived beneath the Himalayas and called the snowy peak Chomolungma or "the Goddess Mother of the World". Nor did they understand the motives of the British men who, by the 1880s, began to arrive to climb the place they believed to be the home of the gods and therefore off limits to mere mortals.

But, having measured and named Mount Everest, the British were now determined to literally stamp their authority on it. Indeed, climbing expeditions multiplied with every season as the race was on to become the first to conquer the summit.

Everest is the most unforgiving of mountains, pitted with hidden crevasses, and prone to avalanches and unpredictable storms that can last weeks. What's more, once climbers pass 2,400 metres (8,000 feet), they are vulnerable to altitude sickness that can hinder their reactions and cloud their judgement.

Beyond 7,600 metres (25,000 feet) and into the "death zone", they are in danger of oxygen deprivation as the percentage of oxygen in the air plummets. To compensate, their breathing and heart rate increases.

Any exertion, whether making a cup of tea or climbing into a sleeping bag, can leave climbers exhausted.

Blood thickens, increasing the risk of blood clots and strokes; insomnia sets in; and loss of appetite is common just at the very point when climbers most need to stay nourished and hydrated.

In 1921, the Royal Geographical Society sent a team to explore and identify would-be routes to the summit without any co-ordination of equipment or gear.

Each climber was free to choose his own clothes and footwear, yet the team somehow managed to reach 6,700 metres before the icy cold and wind of the Himalayan autumn forced their retreat.

A year later, a better-equipped expedition using oxygen at high altitude reached 8,320 metres before wind turned them back. Sadly, on June 7, during a second attempt, an avalanche struck four rope parties, killing seven of the local Sherpa who had already become indispensable as porters and advisors to the British climbers.

They were the first recorded climbing fatalities on Everest, but they would not be the last.

In 1924, the Royal Geographic Society launched another attempt on Everest with a team that included George Mallory, a veteran of both previous expeditions, who, when asked why he was so desperate to climb the peak, had famously answered, "because it's there".

Now aware that the entire climb had to be planned in meticulous detail and executed carefully, the team set up three camps between 7,750 and 8,300 metres, and decided to make two simultaneous attempts at the final ascent.

On June 8, Mallory and his climbing companion Andrew Irvine (chosen because he knew how to work the oxygen equipment) set off for the summit with photographer Noel Odell and two Sherpa following some distance behind them.

Later that day, as the sky cleared, Odell looked up toward the final peak and saw a dark dot moving across the snow, then a second.

He kept watching the ridge and wall for a long time but did not spot them again.

The next day, with the help of oxygen, Odell continued up to the highest tent where he hoped to find a victorious Mallory and Irvine. But the tent was empty and his whistles and yodels went unanswered. No one will ever know whether the pair succeeded in reaching the summit of Everest, only that they did not return.

It was another nine years before a new Everest Committee was formed to try again, but it too failed. In 1933, Francis Sydney Smythe came within 300 metres of the summit before exhaustion and hallucinations forced him to descend and rejoin the rest of his climbing party.

A year later, Maurice Wilson, an eccentric former officer in the British Army, attempted to climb Everest alone. His body was found the following spring at 6,400 metres, near a food depot abandoned by the 1933 expedition.

Again and again, new routes were mapped out and attempts were made only to end in failure or tragedy.

However, by 1953 when Edmund Hillary set out with the rest of the new British team, much had changed. Led by Colonel John Hunt, who had studied every previous assault on the mountain and the prevailing weather conditions, the climbers were dressed in high-altitude nylon weatherproof clothing.

They were also equipped with lightweight oxygen for the final ascent.

Shrewdly, Hunt also rotated his climbers, and, once they neared the peak, sent on the strongest to make the final assault. After an earlier pair had been forced to retire just 300 feet short of the summit, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, recognised as the fittest in the team, were chosen for the last attempt.

"We didn't know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt Everest,” recalls Hillary. "And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we weren't at all sure whether we wouldn't drop dead or something of that nature."

After an uncomfortable night, they left the last camp at South Col in the freezing chill dawn of May 29, 1953. Five hours later, at 11.30 a.m. Hillary and Tenzing stepped on to the summit. Their first task was to scan the peak for signs of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.

Failing to discover any evidence that they had been beaten, the pair then spent 15 minutes taking photographs and eating mint cake, before making Buddhist offerings of sweets and biscuits and planting the flags of Britain, Nepal and the United Nations in the snow.

The 1953 conquest did not put a cap on Everest expeditions. Sadly, many others have tried to follow in Hillary and Norgay's footsteps only to stumble or fall.

Of the 4,000 or so people who have tackled the mountain, only 660 have succeeded, while more than 140 have died trying.

On one single day in 1996, eight climbers died during a private climbing expedition. One of the survivors, Beck Weathers, a doctor from Dallas, Texas, lost his nose, his right hand and part of his right arm, and the fingers on his left hand to frostbite.

For the most part, Chomolungma remains the territory of the gods.

-Asia Features


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