Smiles on Wheels
by Major Paul Westlake
Left: Thajani on her new, hand-driven tricyle
Thajani at home with her mother
Thajani (front) and her family
Salvation Army team members with Thajani’s new tricyle – everyone will know she was helped by The Salvation Army
IT was a hot afternoon in Sri Lanka. I was sipping a refreshing glass of cold orange juice while flicking through some files when I came across one marked ‘Point Pedro Girl’ which was to capture my heart and imagination.
Six weeks previously I had been deployed by The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services to Hikkaduwa in southern Sri Lanka as team leader for tsunami operations. Now, however, I found myself in Jaffna, in the far north of the country. The team leader in Jaffna, Martyn Smith, was taking a well-earned break, having worked for some months in Indonesia before being deployed to Sri Lanka. I was to stand in for him while he was away.
Point Pedro Girl turned out to be Thajani, a 13-year-old who suffers with cerebral palsy and has no use in her legs. Point Pedro is a village 30 kilometres from Jaffna where The Salvation Army is building houses for people whose homes were destroyed by the Indian Ocean tsunami. The previous team leader in Jaffna, Major Ian Payne, had met Thajani and left word of her plight.
I decided to pay Thajani a visit and found a very poor family in a simple home with the minimum of furniture, no electricity and no running water. It turned out that Thajani’s wheelchair had been lost in the tsunami and now her father was having to carry her to and from school every day. It was obvious that Thajani needed some form of transport.
One problem was that this was not part of the official project. We were there to build houses, assist people in getting their livelihoods up and running again and introduce microcredit schemes for small businesses. In other words, there was no money in the budget for such a project. Undaunted, I determined we were going to help Thajani and pray that the money would turn up.
The first task was to get Thajani to a doctor to carry out an assessment. The doctor told us that his normal surgery opened at 8 am but if we could get Thajani to the hospital by 7.30 he would see her before surgery started. Very early the following morning, with my driver, Terence, and Mytheleen – my projects assistant whom I took along to translate – I picked up Thajani to take her to the local hospital.
When we arrived we were confronted with literally hundreds of people waiting to see just a handful of doctors. So much for a 7.30 appointment!
I was struck by the conditions of the hospital. Bare stone floors and walls throughout the building, antiquated equipment, iron beds that must have been at least 50 years old and double the number of patients on a ward that we would see in the UK.
It was interesting to observe the nurses in their lilac uniforms and little hats reminiscent of the uniforms seen in the UK some 20 years ago.
Eventually we were seen by a doctor and Thajani was put through a series of gruelling tests on her limbs to ascertain just how strong or otherwise they were. This took place in full view of not only 10 student doctors but also about 20 to 30 other patients waiting to be seen. Thajani’s ordeal over, the doctor told us he recommended that she be taken to the Disability Rehabilitation Centre in Jaffna to see what kind of chair would be best for her.
On arrival at the centre we spoke with the director who recommended a three-wheeler chair that would be propelled rather like a push bike but with significant differences. Instead of pedals it would have a wheel with a handle that would be operated by Thajani’s left hand – her strongest – and steered with her right. It was to be custom made, which meant Thajani being measured from every angle in every possible position. It could be made within two days at the workshop on the premises of the centre and would cost about £80.
Question: ‘Where was the money to come from?’ Fortunately, by this time Major Wendy Goodman had arrived in Sri Lanka from the UK.
When I told her of our plight Wendy said she had brought over a sum of money from the UK that had been donated by her corps members in Lavenham. It would cover the cost. My prayers were answered!
Two days later we lifted Thajani into her three-wheeler and, after a shaky start, she soon got the hang of it.
Today Thajani is more independent than she has ever been. She can get herself to school and back. She can travel around the village and visit other villagers and she is smiling a lot more than she used to.
While in Sri Lanka I handed over houses to people who had their homes destroyed by the tsunami. I bought equipment in order to restart businesses lost in the disaster. I initiated discussions about how we could invest money in small business using the microcredit system. It was all very fulfilling.
However, I think the most heart-warming project was to give a 13-year-old girl a measure of independence – and to see her smile.
When not on secondment overseas, Major Paul Westlake is in charge of the Salvation Army corps (church) in York, UK