It was December 26th, 2004, and we were celebrating the 2nd Day of Christmas, when a massive tsunami hit South Asia, and the first images of the devastation and despair started flooding TV screens. The number of fatalities kept climbing until it was hard to imagine, hard putting into perspective what this meant. I remember when the death toll hit 80,000, and I thought: we had 1,000 students in my high school, now this is 80 times my high school.
Flying back to Los Angeles on December 30th, the reports, newspapers, TV screens at the airports kept showing these horrible photos of bodies everywhere, children trying to find their parents, parents trying to find their children. I donated to UNICEF and made a personal commitment to continue fundraising when a friend of mine asked me, “Do you want to go?” I had never been in a disaster before and had no idea what to expect, and was seriously scared. One of my nephews, Luca, was 2 years and 2 months old at that time. He was too little to say his name correctly, and kept saying, “Cuca, Cuca,” which was really cute, but then I found out how many hundreds of children his age were too little to know their names and kept searching for their dead parents and families, and had these empty eyes, not understanding how life as they knew it was just gone. For the first time in my life, a disaster became personal: “What if this would be Luca? What if everyone he loves and trusts and counts on would just be gone?” And in the first week of January 2005, I made the decision that I wanted to go and help. I thought that as a pediatrician and also just as a person, I would be able to do something.
The next step was then trying to figure out where to go. With 12 countries being affected and everyone in despair, how to do this logistically, where to start, where to go?
We started making phone calls: to hospitals in the US and Europe, to humanitarian relief organizations, to bus boys in Singapore… everyone we could think of. And I put it out there to the Universe: Whoever is up there, I need help. Where should I go? At the end of the 1st week of January 2005 we connected with a friend of a friend of a friend of mine (that’s where RMF’s concept of ‘friends helping friends helping friends’ started…), an Australian who had a vacation home in the south of Sri Lanka that got completely destroyed in the tsunami. He said, “Please come here. The big organizations aren’t here yet. Wounds are getting infected, people are in despair.” That’s when I knew, and I directed all of my efforts and everyone who supported me towards Sri Lanka, specifically the southernmost tip, Tangalle in Hambantota District.
I prepared my own vaccinations, and medicines and medical supplies to take with me to Sri Lanka for the survivors, and worked on creating a network of support. One of the amazing things I discovered was this network out there, people I had never met before offering their help: we discovered an air bridge from Munich to Colombo which allowed us to ship large amounts of medicines and supplies for free, hospitals in the US and Europe tapped into their supplies, and so many people from all over the world contributed, items big and small, and made introductions and connected. I didn’t intend to go by myself, I tried to go with one of the bigger organizations, but there was a lot of bureaucracy and things moved slowly, and I had time now and I knew people needed help now. I flew to Sri Lanka at the end of January 2005. I arrived at night in Colombo, and we drove south along the coast for about 7 hours towards our destination. The whole coastline was destroyed, ruins everywhere, mile after mile after mile. People along the coast had erected tents in the ruins of their houses. It was eerie and sad against the ocean and the palm trees.
I ended up working in one of the refugee camps in the south of Sri Lanka, close to Tangalle, the Mawella Camp. This was a camp that gave refuge to about 100 families, and they were the lucky ones, because they had shelter there and received food and other supplies; there were thousands more living in the ruins of their houses along the coast. What I hadn’t known before: there is never enough space for everyone in the refugee camps and in the food supply chains. We found many children being apathetic and sometimes catatonic, just sitting there in the ruins of life as they knew it and staring expressionless. The ocean had been their friend all their life, almost all of the families lived from fishery, and now it had turned into this deadly enemy. It was a scene like in World War II; I had never seen anything like it before.
The villagers asked me if I could establish a clinic in the camp. I had never done that before, having only worked in well-equipped hospitals and clinics in Europe and the US. But I thought, “Let’s just figure this out.” And without my knowing at that time, this became one of RMF’s corner stone concepts. So many times when we create something new, it’s this, “Let’s just figure it out.” So many of the children and adults living in the camp had been poor in the first place, but now, having lost even the little they had, they were too poor to even afford the bus money to the closest hospital in Tangalle. And that hospital, as I found out later, was in horrible shape, people who survived the tsunami and tried to find help at this hospital, died there, because there were not enough doctors and not enough medicines to treat them.
We found a 2-room building in the Mawella Camp that was hit by the tsunami, but not destroyed. And we got so many people to help. Friends helping Friends helping Friends. Young recruits from the Sri Lankan navy put in windows, doors, electricity; a carpenter from England built an examination table and shelves for our medicine storage room; a plumber from Scotland put a sink in the little clinic, and connected it to a water tank in a nearby tree so we had running water; a Sri Lankan woman living in the camp sewed curtains. And then I started seeing patients, 70, 80, 90 per day, children, adults, pregnant women. Probably a total of about 1,000 families in the camp and living in their destroyed homes along the coast were able to access medical care at my little clinic in the Mawella Camp.
One of the things I believe in strongly is that healing has to include the whole person; of course illnesses and wounds have to be treated medically, but the emotional, social and economic components of healing are just as important. Real Medicine, our focus on medical/physical, emotional, social and economic support started right there in these first few weeks as well. In addition to the medical care I was able to provide, many Tsunami survivors just came and wanted me to listen to their chest to make sure the ‘Tsunami water they had swallowed didn’t cause them any harm.’ I asked a psychologist to help us in the camp for an afternoon in February 2005. At that time, there were 2 psychologists and 6 psychiatrists in all of Sri Lanka, all of them located in the capital, Colombo. The psychologist saw 6 mothers that afternoon, all of them had lost one or two or all of their children. There was a lot of modesty, culturally, people were not accustomed to show their emotions, so it was very powerful that this visit allowed women for the first time to cry there about their loss and express their feelings. Just these few minutes of crying with a witness made an incredible difference in validating their pain. This gave me so much hope that I wanted to make sure this concept could be applied for as many people around the world as possible who had lived through disasters. It doesn’t need a long term education, just listening and being there often makes all the difference in the world.
And then there was Madumekala. She was 11 when I first met her, with the height of a 3-year-old. She had been hit by a bus when she was 3, and her pituitary gland was destroyed, not producing human growth hormone anymore. Her father came to my little clinic every day. Every. Day. Human growth hormone treatment at that time cost $500 per month. I knew I could do this for a few months, but Madu would need this treatment until after puberty. She was the child that made me realize that I would need help to help her.
I left Sri Lanka in the middle of March 2005 and thought I was going back to my life as I knew it. I had made a promise to so many people in Sri Lanka, and I was committed to keeping these promises – Madumekala, heart surgeries, longer term medical treatments for several children, and more. So, I applied for a 501©(3) nonprofit organization and thought I’ll just continue to help in Sri Lanka.
I went back to Sri Lanka in June 2005 to take on more projects: the support of an existing pre-school, the building of a new pre-school, continued support of the clinic in Mawella Camp, surgeries for several children, and support for several more that needed long term medical treatments. I also took on livelihood projects, helping individuals get their businesses back up and running, such as the support of a carpenter who had lost his tools in the tsunami, and vocational training for several young Sri Lankans. Thus, the economic component of Real Medicine was born.
In August 2005, just a few days after RMF was approved as a nonprofit, Hurricane Katrina hit in the US. Again, our network of ‘friends helping friends helping friends’ kicked in, and we ended up getting support to work in Memphis. There were 14,000 displaced persons in Memphis alone at that time. We continued the emotional/psychological component of Real Medicine there that had started in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, working in shelters, in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, training teachers, caregivers, parents how to identify and support traumatized children.
In the course of 2005, we took on projects in India, supported thousands of victims of the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and by the end of 2005, I had realized that this work had taken over my life, and then I went full force.
Today, Real Medicine has worked in 24 countries across 5 continents and keeps growing every day. Born in Sri Lanka, the ‘island of serendipity,’ Real Medicine’s concepts and vision were born there as well, in the little clinic at the Mawella Camp: Friends helping Friends helping Friends – treating each other, our global teams, with the dignity and respect you give to friends, and also the people we are supporting – not going in with preconceived notions, but treating them with the dignity and respect you’d give to friends, listening and working in partnership, Empowering Local Leadership. Liberating Human Potential. – Let’s figure it out! Together.
In these last few years, we have developed new, creative, ground-breaking, path-finding ways and models of doing global humanitarian work. Often doing things we didn’t know were possible until we made them a reality. Many of our projects would not be in existence without our team having the vision to say: How about this? Why not? Let’s just go for it! Let’s make it happen! Let’s be unrealistic for a second! Between our more than 1,500 team members around the world and considering all the people we are supporting and empowering and working with across 5 continents, more than 60 languages are spoken, many religions and belief systems are represented, and countless cultures and perspectives are part of this – our – global network.
From the little clinic in Sri Lanka, being a hub of hope after one of the most devastating disasters in history to Real Medicine’s global reach today: There is little we cannot do if we do it together. And: We are just getting started!
Join us, and help Liberate Human Potential.