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A haven to heal

Responding to an urgent need, the Hendala Mental Hospital with its tranquil surroundings will soon be turned into a National Rehabilitation Centre for battle-scarred soldiers to recuperate both physically and mentally. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports, Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara (Courtesy: The Sunday Times)

(July 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardain) Their need is great. They are from the battlefront, young men with glazed eyes, brought in with grievous injuries, some maimed, others blinded and all traumatized not only because they themselves have been in the thick of battle but because they have seen their brother-soldiers felled by gunfire, dying amidst the blood, the mud and the devastation.

These are the youth, mostly from the villages, in their twenties, fighting for their country, carried out of the trenches and the battlefront with serious wounds, both to body and mind with a life of despair and hopelessness, stretching like a long road ahead.

They have done their part for Sri Lanka, well beyond the call of duty. What should the motherland do in return? To recuperate, they need time, tranquillity, peace and quiet in addition to medical care, sometimes long term.

Urgent moves are now underway to convert the Hendala Mental Hospital spread over nearly five acres of land to a National Rehabilitation Centre. “This is a national need,” stresses Dr. Wimal Jayantha, the Deputy Director-General of Medical Services of the Health Ministry. In May and June around 900 injured soldiers were taken to the Anuradhapura Hospital, he said underlining the need for a National Rehabilitation Centre.

“Such soldiers need surgical care, especially those who have undergone amputations because the wounds have to be looked after for months. Then there are medical issues. Some may be psychologically unstable and need mental rehabilitation,” Dr. Jayantha explained. Physiotherapy is another must while occupational therapy is also essential to enable them to do some kind of work when they get back home. As it is a long-term stay, a recreational area should be an integral part, where they can relax and meet family members. Social service officials should also have access to them.
Lamenting that the facilities currently available are woefully inadequate, Dr. Jayantha however commends the Ragama Rehabilitation Centre for the good work it has been carrying out along with the rehab units of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police Hospitals.

But, The Sunday Times learns, the Ragama Rehabilitation Centre can only accommodate around 300-350. And as there is no time to get the land and construct the buildings, we looked around for already available facilities, says Dr. Jayantha who is part of the eight-member Steering Committee appointed to make the National Rehabilitation Centre a reality as soon as possible.

They zeroed in on the Hendala Mental Hospital and the Kandana District Hospital, followed up by visits and also intensive discussions. Hendala, with three large wards and one small one, had the space and the right environment while Kandana could part with only three small wards which could accommodate about 150.

So the Hendala Mental Hospital it will be, the Steering Committee which met at Hendala once again last Tuesday has decided after a “thorough evaluation”. (See box for what happens to the mentally-ill patients)

“Within a month, we are hoping to transfer the mentally-ill patients and then renovate and refurbish the buildings at Hendala to make it suitable for the rehabilitation of soldiers within three months,” says the Director of the Armed Forces and Police Welfare Division, Malkanthi Jayawardhana. Referring to the beginnings, she says that the idea was mooted at a meeting Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva had with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on May 9, where he had pointed out that a Rehabilitation Centre with all facilities was a national need.

All essential officials have been co-opted to the Steering Committee including those from the Health, Defence and Justice Ministries along with the Welfare Divisions of the security forces which come under Industrial Development Minister Kumara Welgama and many more.

Hopefully, in three months, the war-battered youth of this land will have a haven where they can heal both physically and mentally before they go back to their shattered lives, pick up the pieces and soldier on. Then they will be better “armed” to face the real world which is sometimes also a cruel world with no time for the differently-abled.

They won’t be thrown out

A boy stands still while an old man, on his haunches, keeps trying to tie his waistband. Finally, he succeeds and shuffles away. The boy seems satisfied and he too shuffles off with a blank expression.
This is a glimpse into the Hendala Mental Hospital, opened in 1983, which now houses around 180 patients, most of whom are schizophrenic and has a staff of around 60 with two Medical Officers based there. Consultant Psychiatrists make regular visits to check on the patients at this hospital which comes under the Ragama Teaching Hospital.

With plans to turn the Hendala Hospital to a National Rehabilitation Centre, what will happen to this voiceless group, some of whom have not had a family visit in a very long time?

Dispelling fears that they will be thrown out of Hendala with no place to go, Dr. Wimal Jayantha says that in modern health care, mentally-ill patients are not supposed to be caged in institutions.

“The acutely mentally ill are institutionalized in places like Angoda but the need is for ‘intermediate care’ after which they can be sent back into the community so that they look after them. This would help overcome societal rejection and ostracism,” he says.

Plans are underway to transfer about 150 of these patients to the Kandana District Hospital where they will be looked after as they were at Hendala. Simultaneously, arrangements are being made to appoint a Medical Officer for Mental Health at each District Hospital so that these patients can be sent to those and ultimately reintroduced to their community.

“On a recent visit to Kahawatte in Ratnapura I held discussions on the appointment of an MO/Mental Health, so that patients from Hendala who are from that area could be sent there. Then the same is taking place in Weligama,” he said.

He explains that such arrangements would help the system to overcome issues which cropped up in such cases as Jamis who fell through the system. Dr. Jayantha adds: “Then we can link up the patients who are okay with their relatives and homes.”

P.P. Jamis from Hipawwa off Ibbagamuwa had been arrested for killing his father in the 1950s, committed to the Angoda Mental Hospital by court, never convicted (his father had been alive at the time of arrest) and forgotten for 50 years until he fell ill which required medical attention at the National Hospital. This had brought his case out and finally led to his release.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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