Heart-wrenching sights meet the eye – men, women and children of all ages, walking in or being wheeled in slowly. Heads shaven, some are wearing face masks while tiny-tots who are being carried by their parents are held very close. The heart dips and then soars. The change is immense, a far cry from what [...]


Hopeful transformation

A name change, a state-of-the-art new complex with improved facilities at the country’s premier cancer institute have brought much needed relief to thousands of patients who flock here for treatment. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports

Piyaseeli and her son in comfortable Ward 15A. Pix by Indika Handuwala

Heart-wrenching sights meet the eye – men, women and children of all ages, walking in or being wheeled in slowly. Heads shaven, some are wearing face masks while tiny-tots who are being carried by their parents are held very close.

The heart dips and then soars. The change is immense, a far cry from what it was not so long ago. With the magical-like transformation has also come a name-change to Apeksha Hospital, Maharagama.

Hope (apeksha) and expectation are what the National Cancer Institute is exuding and this is the feeling we get as we step in and chat with parents who have brought in children, other patients and also the staff.

Apeksha Hospital’s latest ‘jewel’ in the crown is the seven-storey 370-bed Razavi Medical Complex opened last year. With the aura of a star-class hotel, this hi-tech, state-of-the-art complex enfolds the patients in comfort. Large open areas and indoor plants are aplenty with each floor being adorned by ferns. Muted not glaring, yellows, greens and oranges add colour to the building.

Dr. Buddhika Kurukulasuriya

Spacious, airy and full of light even on the rainy Monday this week, the Razavi complex is home to a vital 24-hour Emergency Treatment Unit (ETU), whereas earlier the hospital had only an ETU which functioned from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

‘Cancer patients can be rushed here at any time now throughout the day or night,” says Apeksha Hospital’s Deputy Director Dr. Buddhika Kurukulasuriya.

The Razavi complex was built at a whopping cost of Rs. 1.2 billion by the owners of Ahmad Tea Ltd., as a token of appreciation, he says, adding that the government equipped it at a cost of Rs. 1 billion.

The facilities here are amazing and include 5 fully-equipped Operating Theatres, a 12-bed Surgical Intensive Care Unit (ICU), an eight-bed Medical ICU, a Bone Marrow Transplant Unit and a Chemotherapy Unit. A paying ward is to be set up shortly.

“We have performed 15 bone marrow transplants on adults, who otherwise would have been compelled to go abroad at a huge cost of Rs. 5-6 million,” points out Dr. Kurukulasuriya.

Dr. Wasantha Rathnayake

We walk into a large hall. Seated in comfortable reclining chairs with leg rests are a number of people watching a Bollywood dance on television (TV). Only a closer look reveals that they are getting their doses of chemotherapy while in another area those who wish to lie on beds do so for their doses.

“Yes, earlier they had to sit on wooden chairs. Now the facilities have been upgraded so that we can give chemo to 200 people instead of 100 and there are TVs to take their minds away from the 2-4 hour treatment,” says the Deputy Director.

With the vision of being a Tertiary Care Centre of Excellence in the treatment and management of cancer, it is Dr. Kurukulasuriya who also details the expansion and development of the 870-bed Apeksha Hospital, catering to men, women and children from every nook and corner of Sri Lanka.

Services are provided by a committed and dedicated 38 Consultants, 260 Medical Officers, 450 nurses and nearly 500 health-care assistants, we learn.

Relaxed and entertained, patients receiving their doses of chemotherapy at the Razari complex

Turning towards the laboratories, the Deputy Director says that they perform free testing linked to biochemistry, haematology, histopathology and microbiology. The haematology lab now has a new eight-colour diagnostic flow cytometry system which covers all the scopes, whereas earlier there was only a four-colour one. This has much improved sensitivity in assessing minimal residual disease in haematological malignancies.

With regard to radiology, Dr. Kurukulasuriya explains that the PET (positron emission tomography) machine is due to be installed in January next year. Using nuclear medicine imaging, it would help to evaluate organ and tissue functions. The older Cobalt-60 Therapy or external beam radiotherapy is now being replaced by the more precise external beam radiation treatment from the Linear Accelerator.

Meanwhile, the Paediatric Wards with about 130 beds and the four-bed Paediatric ICU are manned by four Paediatric Oncologists and a Paediatrician.

Looking to the future, the Deputy Director says that Apeksha Hospital is hoping to get more sophisticated tools such as a very modern Computed Tomography (CT) scanning machine as well as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning machine.

A place they can truly call home
“It is a home away from home,” says R.K.D.V. Piyaseeli from a village close to Ridigama in Kurunegala who has given up her job at a garment factory and brought her one-and-only son.

Making something special for their children: Mothers provided a kitchen with all facilities at CCC House

The lives of mother and son collapsed exactly a year ago. It was on December 3, last year that her boy complained of leg-pain and they were advised to get a blood test by a doctor. Seeing the blood reports they were told to go to the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital immediately. Thereafter, everything fell into place with the free state health system taking over, with her son being sent to the Apeksha Hospital and Consultant Paediatric Oncologist Dr. Wasantha Rathnayake reassuring them.

While telling them gently that her putha had leukaemia, she repeats what he told her when we meet Piyaseeli just outside Ward 15A. “Kaalayak beheth karala honda karanna puluwan kiwwa,” she says with a poignant smile.

We see the team of Ward 15A in action – gentle tones of concern and advice to parents not to miss the clinic days or the days of chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

While her mother and brothers supported her in whatever way they could financially, the battle against this curable blood cancer which had gripped her son was hers to fight and fight alone.

Treatment followed, with a paralysis of her son’s left limbs needing a referral to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children and then being warded at the National Hospital for nearly two months.

Later having been warded also at the Apeksha Hospital for some time, they returned home. The follow-up treatment, thereafter, was as an out-patient. Being from far away, where could she and her son stay?

Within the hospital, there is “a home away from home” not only for Piyaseeli and her son but also for many others, parents with children like a father from Beliatte who is here with his four-year-old middle daughter who has acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), as his wife has just had a baby back home and also adult patients whom we meet a little while later.

The walk around CCC (Courage, Compassion and Commitment) House is an eye-opener. ‘A home that gives hope and saves lives’ is the motto of this transit home for cancer outpatients and their carers.

With Piyaseeli repeating that “aarakshawa thiyenawa”, we see rooms with attached bathrooms for parents with smaller children, rooms with common bathrooms for bigger children and their parents and wards for men and women. In a room with two comfortable beds over which are strung colourful mosquito nets are W.M. Sriyani and 13-year-old daughter Himashi who has a le prashnaya (blood problem) from Kumbukwewa in Kurunegala.

On a different floor S.P. Nalani, 64, whose womb has been removed and current allala ivarai (undergone current therapy) is ready to go home, while sitting around chatting are a knot of women from Dompe, Nawalapitiya, Galle and Polonnaruwa who still have to get a little more treatment. They have just had their lunch, while from a kitchen where a few mothers with picky children are making a little “special” something for them, rise mouth-watering aromas. A mother from Welimada is stirring a bitter-gourd curry and a dhal curry, while another is adding salt to taste to a dish before taking a few drops onto her palm.

A ward for outpatients at CCC House

“Loku vaasiyak,” says the father from Beliatte who declined to be identified, asking CCC House nothibunanam koheda inne (where would we have stayed if CCC House was not there).

Manager Laksiri Fernando relates how CCC House came into being. The Founder Chairman of the CCC Foundation, Jetha Devapura, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, had been a regular visitor to the hospital, lending a helping hand, when its Director was Dr. Kanishka Karunaratne.

Once when he asked Dr. Karunaratne about anything more that he could do, he had related how the corridors were so crowded with sleeping patients and their carers that he literally had to jump over them when making his way to his office. They were outpatients from distant areas such as Jaffna, Vavuniya, Moneragala who just did not have the wherewithal to stay in the dingy cramped lodgings which had mushroomed around the hospital.

Build a Transit Home, was Dr. Karunaratne’s plea to Mr. Devapura who then formed the CCC Foundations in Australia and Sri Lanka. While he raises funds in Australia, the four Trustees (currently they are top business magnates Chandi Page, Suren Madanayake, Suresh Mendis and Gamini Wimalasuriya) based in Sri Lanka do the same here.

The 194-bed CCC House has 45 rooms for children with two beds each and four wards with 26 beds each, for men and women.

Lots of greenery, a large pond with fast-swimming fish, a play area with colourful equipment, TV areas, reading areas, meal areas, a counselling room, every little thing has been thought of.

“It’s like a hotel,” smiles Mr. Fernando who manages with a bare minimum staff of 11, explaining that while the food is provided by the hospital, everything else is looked after by the Foundations through donations. Abans contributes by providing cleaning services at no profit, charging only for the actuals and Kay Jay Security provides a safe environment also at cost and no profit.

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