Vol 57 No. 4 | Feb. 2005
University Couple Count Blessings As Sri Lankan Trip Turns Tragic
Health Science's Sarath Gunatilake, his wife Hemanthi, an accountant in the CSULB Bursar's Office, and their 24-year-old son, decided to skip a trip to the beach on the day after a wedding while on vacation in Sri Lanka. It was a lifesaving choice.
It wasn't until Gunatilake, a Long Beach resident who joined the university in 1987, turned on his television that he saw the destruction wrought by a tsunami that slammed into his island paradise home, known as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” killing at least 40,000 of his neighbors and some 212,000 overall.
When Gunatilake rushed to the devastated coast to assess the damage, he found entire towns had been erased. An estimated 115,000 residences were destroyed, leaving 1 million Sri Lankans homeless.
“At first, we tried frantically to contact everybody who knew a friend of ours from Encino, an obstetrician Dr. Anton Ambrose, who had disappeared from a safari resort,” said Gunatilake, the only practicing physician holding a full-time faculty position at CSULB. “We learned that he, his wife and daughter had been swept away by the tsunami. He survived by grabbing onto a branch and was taken to a nearby hospital. But his wife and daughter were still missing. I later heard from a colleague that first the daughter's body had been recovered, then the wife.” Two of Gunatilake's doctor friends also died.
“What I saw was really devastating,” said Hemanthi Gunatilake, who joined the university in 1995 and was promoted recently to be a disbursements specialist. “I'd never seen anything like it in my lifetime. I'm still in shock. Whether it is in Sri Lanka, California, or anywhere in the world, to see people running from something like that was like watching the devil chasing them.”
Sarath Gunatilake has served as a consultant on issues of public health in 13 countries representing the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, USAID, and the South Pacific Commission.
“As a public health physician, I have seen disasters before in many countries,” he said. “But I have never seen a disaster of this magnitude. The world has never seen a disaster like this. It was heartbreaking.”
Gunatilake attended Sri Lankan Ministry of Health briefings from day one as well as joining other physicians to assess damage.
“Almost all the hospitals were converted to morgues,” he recalled. “There were cases where the entire hospital grounds were filled with bodies. Survivors tried to identify their relatives. It was a real mess.”
He helped a team of WHO officers assess the damage and health care needs while touring hospitals and refugee camps. His team communicated with the central government and produced a report of items that were urgently needed such as kerosene lamps, kitchen utensils, disinfectants, refrigerators for hospitals and communications equipment.
For the last two weeks of their stay, Hemanthi Gunatilake lived in a couple of pairs of pants and matching T-shirts.
“I donated everything I had,” she recalled. “I came home with empty suitcases. I volunteered to distribute food and clothing. It was not really a vacation but I was glad I was there so I could help.”
Recovery efforts have three priorities, Dr. Gunatilake explained. The first is to provide food, medication and shelter; the second is to clear the rubble left by the tsunami; and the third is to rebuild the devastated infrastructure.
“Hospitals washed away while the doctors were still doing their rounds,” he said. “What we need to do is to coordinate activities. There are many individuals who want to help, but unless those individual efforts are coordinated and rebuilding begins on a systematic plan, there is the potential to waste international aid. It is so important not to duplicate efforts.”
Hemanthi Gunatilake recalls being moved when she returned to discover her office and home phone voice mails as well as her e-mail files were jammed with messages of concern.
“I was especially touched to hear from some of our student assistants who graduated years ago,” she said. “It was amazing. It's really nice to work where there are so many nice people.”
The couple plans to return to Sri Lanka, with Dr. Gunatilake hoping to travel as early as spring break and Hemanthi Gunatilake next December.
“The disaster has changed my perspective about everyday life,” said Dr. Gunatilake. “It is easy to become upset about everyday things. Then something comes along like this and it helps you realize the value of life. It makes me humble and want to do everything possible to help.”
Mrs. Gunatilake sees a better day coming for her homeland. “The Sri Lankan people are very strong,” she said. “Our country has gone through many troubles, especially in recent years. It is the chance for the Sri Lankan people to come together. They have support from all over the world to do this. With that kind of support, we will rebuild our country.”
Both Gunatilakes have plans for campus-wide fund raising for tsunami relief. Those interested may call Sarath Gunatilake at ext. 5-5723 or Hemanthi Gunatilake at ext. 5-8305.
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