Building hope, and a hospital, in Sri Lanka

October 1, 2007

The author discusses the efforts to build a pediatric hospital in devastated Sri Lanka.

In March of 2005, my friend and pediatric colleague, Kanishka Ratnayaka, MD, had raised nearly $1,000 through a word-of-mouth fundraiser at a local bar. All proceeds were going to tsunami relief efforts in South Asia. Sitting across the table from me, he thumbed through the stack of dollars tucked in an envelope.

"Imagine this," he said flatly, "times two thousand." He could easily hand the $1,000 to one of the many federal or nonprofit organizations that had sprung up to aid the Indonesian and South Asian populations. That would already be a noble gesture from a young physician still mired in the exhaustive time commitment and steep learning curve of medical training.

Or, perhaps he could do more.

Now he was contemplating his obligations.

"It will be a huge project, but I think we can do it," he said. Then he added, "If we commit, though, we can't turn back. We have to get it done."

Ratnayaka and three of his friends also of South Asian heritage-surgical resident Pratheepan Gulasekaram, lawyer Sanjay Daluvoy, and AOL executive Chaminda Wijetilleke-had grandiose thoughts. They had visited the area shortly after the tsunami struck, and were captivated by the breadth of the destruction. More than just raising money, they considered the feasibility that they might be able to create a tangible, sustainable difference.

Specifically, they floated the notion to rebuild a pediatric hospital in southern Sri Lanka, to replace the one destroyed by flood waters. To do so, they determined they would need nearly $2 million.

Three years later, the uncertainty of that early discussion seems impossibly distant. Ratnayaka and his friends, through their World Children's Initiative nonprofit organization, created the very real Project Peds. They have broken ground on a three-story, 170-bed pediatric hospital that will be part of a new medical campus in Matara, Sri Lanka. They have fostered strong partnerships with the Sri Lankan government and professional organizations, and negotiated the complexities of nonprofit growing pains.

As a testament to their efforts, Dr. Ratnayaka and his friends earned the audience of former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. After presenting their vision to the two Presidents, they were awarded $400,000 from the Bush-Clinton Tsunami Relief fund to build their hospital. With these dollars, and the dollars yet to come, they have come very close to building a dream from scratch.

Not bad for a pediatrician who, in his free time, heals patients and comforts families.

To learn more, or to donate, visit Project Peds at http://www.slprojectpeds.org/.