For Richer or Poorer

18 Jan 2017

In June 2014 Associate Professor John Moore was approached by the Australian Sri Lanka Society of NSW asking for our help and expertise in the field of Stem Cell Transplant. After an initial conversation, John and I, made a special trip to Colombo to find out more about the project. That was the beginning of the relationship with Dr Prasad Abeysinghe and his team in the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A year later, with the support of the federal government and the Australia Sri Lanka Association, 16 members of the team from Colombo boarded a plane bound for Sydney. For three months they received their initial intensive education and training from the team at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney (SVHS). Returning to Colombo they continued their training and preparations of the facilities. Through regular video conferences and the e-learning programmes, myself and the team in Sydney offered continuous mentoring and helped to design their transplant ward and stem cell facilities.

In October 2016, we reached a milestone in our journey, when three of us, Amada, Helen and I set off bound for Colombo on the 20th of October to watch the team perform their first ever transplant. 

Reflecting on the trip we gained great insight into Sri Lankan culture and health care. And most importantly about the value of collaboration. These are just some of our insights:

A new age of medicine is dawning in Sri Lanka

Commonly held perspectives would have you imagine Sri Lanka as a chaotic and overwhelming country. And landing in Colombo during an intensely hot and humid day we certainly experienced this first hand. Tuk tuks were rushing everywhere, there were clouds of dust rising from the streets and incessant honking as Helen commented.

But tucked away from the hustle, in a quiet corner we arrived at Razavi Medical Clinic at the National Cancer Institute in Maharagama. The clinic is the first public facility in Sri Lanka to offer Stem Cell Transplant (HSCT). 

A legoland of brightly painted walls, lush greenery and wide open spaces, it’s clear that deep care and attention has been put into the facility, which was made possible by the London Tea Company Ahmad. For us, the clinic was a symbol of the dawning of a new age of medicine in Sri Lanka, one where a just level of care, that reflects the mission and values of SVHS, is being offered. And not just those who have the means to afford treatment, but for all. 
Walking the halls, interacting with the team and seeing the pride they had for the clinic was incredibly inspiring, it was a great reminder of the bigger picture and wider impact our work is having. 

Radical generosity leads to success

From the moment we landed in Colombo, greeted by a welcome banner and flowers, we experienced what can only be described as radical generosity. 

Business enterprises not even remotely in healthcare shared a vested interest in wanting to make the country a better place for all people. Via the Canberra chapter of the Australia Sri Lanka Association donors living in both Sri Lanka and Australia provided the team with a driver, hotel accommodation and contributed to the cost of flights. SVHS also provided support. Without this outpouring of generosity the mission wouldn’t have even been possible - let alone successful. 

And generosity of spirit can’t be overlooked either, as we were left with memories of belly laughs, warm handshakes and shared experiences that made deep connections between both teams and created a powerful learning environment for all. 

Through teaching, we also learn

Right from the beginning it was evident the team in Sri Lanka was eager to learn. Their deep concentration and constant questioning was testament to this. And they valued immensely the contribution we made. Watching them move through their learning and finally demonstrating their skills was a proud moment. Amanda remembers one nurse in particular diligently setting up the machine for the very first collection with more than 30 colleagues, media, reporters and superiors looking on. With beads of perspiration evident on her brow and a nervous tremor visible, she displayed with precision everything she had learnt. In that moment we were all incredibly proud of her.

But the week we spent in Colombo wasn’t just a teaching experience. We also did an incredible amount of learning, experiencing first hand the power of the Sri Lankan’s humble approach, endless focus on teamwork and dedication to a higher cause of transforming health care in Sri Lanka. 
It was much more than a week away from business as usual. It brought about personal and professional growth, increased confidence and most importantly built a deep connection to our purpose. Amanda feels that coming back to Sydney she noticed a significant change in herself – a bigger and brighter smile and a real sense of purpose, love and acceptance. 

What’s next?

This project has been eye opening for me and everyone on the team. I sincerely hope that in future more learning partnerships can be modelled off the experience we’ve had. Working in this way is beneficial for everyone. It creates powerful partnerships where all are learning. The world is changing incredibly quickly and by continually striving to widen our perspective we’re able to adapt and change with it.

A second trip took place in December 2016 when Associate Professor Moore and Dr Milliken spent a week each in Colombo with the aim of ensuring a smooth and successful outcome for the second stage of the Colombo team’s first transplant. As for this mission, it certainly isn’t the end of the relationship and our teams will be in close contact. 

Author: Professor David Ma