“He told me that some nice guys have built the hospital. When he learnt that I am one of them, he was very grateful,” Sivagananathan said. He was referring to the Trail Walk that succeeded in raising 10 million rupees for the Cancer hospital in the North, solely through till donations. Trail 2016 just concluded, remaining true to its tag-line, walk, unite and heal. MAS Holdings Chief Growth Officer, Nathan Sivagananathan spoke to the Weekend Nation about the journey so far.
“About 10 years ago, my sister died of cancer in the UK. I was thinking if she could die in the UK with all the facilities there, what I could do to improve the conditions here. I visited the Maharagama Hospital and it was chaos. There was a general lack in organization and patients were sharing beds. They were occupying corridors at the time and they didn’t even have an intensive care unit. After a surgery patients were just kept on corridors and then taken to the wards,” Sivagananathan revealed.
First thing he did was get a good set of people on the board of trustees. “I got Hans Wijayasuriya, Rajendra Theagarajah, Dian Gomes, Ranjan Seevaratnam and Mahela Jayawardene,” he said.
Once they started the project, they understood that most of the issues were infrastructure based. “People from both the North and South used to give up jobs and come to Colombo with their families in order to receive treatment. During the war, people from the north used to come by boat,” he added.
He felt the need for another cancer hospital. With these thoughts, 2009 came about. “My colleague Sarinda Unamboowe said that if this war ends, he would walk from the southernmost point to the northernmost point of Sri Lanka. After the war was over, I went up to him and reminded him of his promise. He said he is willing to walk, as long as he could find someone to walk with him. I agreed to walk as long as we could build a cancer hospital in the north by raising money alongside,” said Sivagananathan.
Their aim was to get many people to donate whatever amount they could. Even one rupee mattered to them. “With each walk we had a target and we also created a website which helps crowd source money. When one person registers and sends the link to other friends it generates funds,” he said.
According to Sivagananathan, their previous walk was very small compared to this time. “Lot of people did not support us and companies did not join us. It was much more difficult to send the message out,” he declared.
Once they finished the walk, it took them about one and half years to get all the paperwork approved. According to Sivagananathan, it was a very slow process, there were no regulations and people told them that they will never build the hospital because the government would never allow them to.
“We were frustrated. Then, one day we were sitting in the Health Ministry and it turned out to be the open day to meet the minister. It was the period during which President Maithripala Sirisena served as the Health Minister. We explained the whole thing to him and after hearing about the project he called everybody in the ministry and told them that he wanted it signed by three o’clock that day,” recalled Sivagananathan.
This resulted in the 120 bed cancer hospital in the North. Sivagananathan believes that the hospital has served about 5,000 patients up to now. They have also established a fund for the maintenance of the hospital. He says that even people from Anuradhapura and Kurunegala receive treatment from the northern hospital.
They have informed the minister that they would walk again to build a hospital in the south. “But we first wanted to ensure that the first hospital is running smoothly before working on the next,” said Sivagananathan.
For Sivagananathan this time’s walk was very different. The cancer hospital was only one part of it. To him, it was more about peace and unity. “Last time, when we were walking towards the north, people were behind their fences and they wouldn’t even come out. If you show them a till they would look at you very strangely. This time they wanted to join, they knew what the cause was. People in north were supporting a hospital that will be in Galle,” he says.
An estimated three thousand people were at the opening. Schools, priests, doctors and nurses, shop owners and many others joined in. Doctors organized their own walk to join and they raised Rs.350,000. On the last day they provided Rs.750,000 according to Sivagananathan.
This time they also carried 30,000 cancer awareness booklets which they distributed from the North to South.
According to Sivagananathan, the last time during the 27 days of their walk they collected only Rs.7.9 million through tills. “This time from just the North we collected nine million rupees. This is to support a hospital in the south. That’s the difference. When we went to Vavuniya there were about 4,000 to 5,000 people on the road waiting for us. This shows that it’s only a small percentage of people who have a problem about unity in this country,” he said.
First time they only had about 30,000 people walking with them. This time around 70,000 to 80,000 people walked with them. They managed to collect Rs. 50 million on the road this time. “To count the money every day it took about eight to nine hours. All this money would contribute towards the Galle hospital,” Sivagananathan said.
“This time having Mahela for all 28 days made a massive difference. People were jumping on Mahela and were hanging on to his neck, taking pictures. He had the patience of an angel and he stopped for anybody who wanted to donate. It was most difficult for him to walk than anybody else because he had to stop every few steps. Both Mahela and his wife were so humble throughout the whole walk. We had lot of other cricketers and film stars walk with us too. It helped a lot. More importantly, so many children came out to support us,” said Sivagananathan.
He is most proud of the fact that they could engage the public. “None of these hospitals are about Sarinda or me. It’s about people,” said Sivagananathan.
This is the sole aim of their website; they wanted many people to contribute rather than to receive single big cheques. Sivagananathan believes collecting a few rupees from thousands of people is better. “This way so much blood, sweat and tears go into the making of the hospital. Last time was about healing. This time it was all about unity,” he said.
According to him, public engagement came about because they now know about the governance of the trust. It has good directors, they always put the counts up on the website and every single penny goes to the hospital since they don’t use it for administration purposes. Sivagananathan believes that they have proven that they can build a hospital, deliver a hospital and maintain a hospital. That gave the confidence.” Also, people know that we are doing this for the betterment of the country. We are not trying to be stars or politicians. We are just ordinary people doing ordinary things with public engagement,” said Sivagananathan.
Their trust is called the Colours of Courage Trust. “People get courage out of colours. In cancer you need to be bright. Patients always try to hide when they have cancer. They always wear scarves on their heads. After chemotherapy they turn pale. We want to make things vibrant and make them happy to make them feel better. The hospital in the north is like a hotel, with a big garden, fresh air and plenty of sunlight. Patients don’t feel that they are in a hospital. Mental recovery is sometimes more important than medication,” said Sivagananathan.
“This time Trail became a movement with public involvement, it went beyond what we were doing”.
Sivagananathan believes the walk was really addictive since people who wanted to walk only for a day ended up walking more.
Bhathiya and Santhush made a video for them with the children in the Maharagama Cancer Hospital. The video went viral. It was viewed by about half a million people. BBC and YAMU also did videos and all this helped. A lot of people did their own events and raised funds as well. This engaged people in whatever they liked since not everybody liked to walk. A girl had a Bharatha Natyam in Kadiresan Hall and donated funds from it. There were people cycling for Trail. Over 100 companies also became engaged. People helped along the way with water bottles and fruits.
“I am thankful for everybody who walked with us. We always said that if we can save one life, the 670 kilometres would have been worth it. For me hearing the stories from doctors and nurses about the lives we saved by building the hospital in the north has been worth it. I hope we can do the same in the south,” Sivagananathan said.
BVP Tharanga from MAS commented that looking back he can’t imagine how he managed to walk from Matara to Jaffna.”We woke up early morning and walked for about five hours at a stretch. We got caught in the rain and we were under the scorching sun but since we walked with many people we did not feel tired. Very happy about collecting money for a cause like this,” he said.
According to IV Thilakaratne from MAS, this walk was better than the last since many people tirelessly collected money for the cause. Tharanga and Thilakaratna are considered the lifeblood of Trail blazers who walked all 28 days and the real heroes behind the scenes. Tharanga provided the walkers with Jeevani and all other first aid they needed while Thilakaratna maundered the vehicles and distributed cool water.
“We are one and a half million dollars short. Anybody can help us by buying cement bags, bricks and such. For those who want to donate money, please contact us through our website,” appealed Sivagananathan.