Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings killed 253 people in three districts. The attack on Saint Sebastian’s Church in Negombo alone caused over 219 casualties – almost three-fourths were women and children. The Negombo District General Hospital records 110 fatalities, with most of the deaths occurring instantaneously or within minutes of the blast.
Hasaru Jayakody, 17, suffered shrapnel injuries that required urgent surgery. His mother, who had been standing a step in front of him at the church service, did not survive the blast. Although Hasaru was discharged from hospital a fortnight later, several bomb fragments remain in his body; doctors determined it was safer not to remove them for the time being. His recovery – both physical and psychological – will take its course.
The medical response to the bomb blasts, however, had to be immediate.
“We were barely prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. Our disaster drills were for 40 casualties. This was unprecedented,” states Dr. Chandraguptha Ranasinghe, the hospital’s Director. He further added, “A disaster is an emergency situation for any kind of institution. For us, it is especially so. We had enough wards, enough theatre facilities, but accessing the necessary human resources and equipment was a major challenge. Moreover, it was a Sunday. We needed an immediate backup plan.”
The urgency and extent of the disaster meant that the hospital’s Director had to shift promptly from routine mode to disaster mode, thinking on his feet and coordinating with the Ministry of Health, medical professionals, private sector medical institutions, police and military authorities, and other agencies. Dr. LakKumar Fernando, Senior Clinical Head and Consultant Paediatrician, points out that the range of responders as well as the pace of response was astounding: “We reached out for help and there was a huge rallying of forces. Within a few hours, we had a doctor per patient. We also received the medical supplies we critically needed, particularly to stabilize the seriously injured.”
UNICEF has a long-standing partnership with Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health and is quick to provide humanitarian assistance, especially at times of disasters. “As a result of these bombings, the hospitals in Negombo, Colombo, and Batticaloa had a huge influx of patients. UNICEF provided urgent equipment required to manage critical patients, such as infusion pumps and paediatric ventilators,” says Dr. Dhammica Rowel, UNICEF’s Health and Nutrition Officer. More equipment was provided soon after so that the hospitals could manage similar disasters more efficiently.
UNICEF’s contribution of medical equipment ranged from high-flow nasal cannulas for children to paediatric ventilators, amounting to the value of USD 91,297. UNICEF is helping the Ministry of Health upgrade its Paediatric Intensive Care Units at the District General Hospital in Negombo and Teaching Hospital in Batticaloa, and the Neurosurgical and Neurotrauma Intensive Care Unit, and Casualty Operation Theatre of the Accident Service at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in Colombo.
Another critical need identified was mental health and psychosocial support. UNICEF disseminated key information for parents to help children and themselves cope in the aftermath of traumatic events. This has been widely covered in the national media, including print, TV, radio, and online in the English, Sinhala, and Tamil languages.
Dr. Himali Wijesinghe, Consultant Paediatrician at the Negombo District General Hospital, reiterates the urgency of responding to the emotional impact of a disaster on people, particularly children and adolescents: “After the Easter Sunday bombing, church volunteers and psychiatrists offered immediate counselling services, but we would like to see people given more continuous support. People are undergoing feelings of disbelief and shock and trying to come to terms with loss.”
Hasaru Jayakody was the last victim of the bomb blast to leave the Negombo District Hospital. He is trying to reassure his father that he is focused on moving on with his life and becoming the engineer he always wanted to be. His father Priyantha speaks of his son’s need to constantly talk to his friends about the tragic experience, particularly the loss of his mother: “That’s the way he is coping. We will support each other through this.”