Within 24 hours after the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, at the request of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, three Hadassah Medical Organization doctors flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka to provide their expertise in caring for victims of disaster. They included Professor Avi Rivkind, Head of General Surgery and the Trauma Unit; Professor Dan Engelhardt, Head of Pediatrics; and Professor Yoel Donchin of the Anesthesiology Department.

Shortly after that, Dr. Esti Galili-Weisstub, Director of the Child and Adolescent Unit of the Department of Psychiatry at the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, flew to Sri Lanka to contribute her expertise on the psychological care of Sri Lanka’s traumatized children, many of whom were orphaned by the tsunami. Dr. Galili was one of several mental health care professionals – and the only child psychiatrist – to participate in an Israeli Health Ministry mission, organized at the behest of Sri Lanka’s Minister of Health. She arrived in Colombo just as Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratung stressed his country’s urgent need for senior health professionals, particularly experts on children.

As Dr. Galili, an expert on both the short and long-term effects of trauma on children, explains: “We empowered their health system. We taught local medical staff to begin coping with the enormous task of treating the effects of a tragedy of this magnitude.” In the entire country, there are only 35 psychiatrists, only three of whom are child psychiatrists. At the Medical School of the University of Colombo, Dr. Galili and Israeli colleagues combined formal classes for medical students, residents, and senior staff with smaller break-out sessions. Dr. Galili and her Israeli colleagues concluded that their most important mission was to share the vast experience accumulated in Israel in addressing trauma-related stress.

One of the ways that the Israelis reached out to their Sri Lankan counterparts was by identifying with them, Dr. Galili explained. “Some of my Israeli colleagues explained how they lost their families in the Holocaust, but that they, their descendents, are living testimony of man’s ability to go on with life when so much is destroyed,” she said.

Dr. Galili remains in e-mail contact with Sri Lanka’s mental health professionals, responding to specific questions as they arise. For example, she recently received an e-mail asking how to help a child who is now afraid to drink. She has also sent badly needed child psychiatry texts to her Southeast Asian colleagues. In addition, there is an ongoing plan in place for rotating Israeli staff to operate a mental health treatment center in Sri Lanka.

In addition to our physicians’ role, HMO and HMO employees donated clothes and toys and the hospital donated blankets, sheets, pillows, and towels which HMO shipped to Southeast Asia. Included in this aid package were 10,000 blankets, 3,680 liters of mineral water, 12 tons of food, 17.5 tons of baby food, more than 9 tons of medicine, as well as additional supplies such as generators, tents, beds, and mattresses.

These shipments are still ongoing. The arranging and packing of these shipments took place in the afternoons and on Fridays, not during working hours.

Total HMO direct costs have been $10,000.*

*Hadassah International established a Tsunami Relief Fund that financially supports HMO’s medical professionals who volunteer their services and materials to assist in the relief and reconstruction efforts.