Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 21 October 2012
Dr Wijaya Godakumbura is what I call a serial life-saver.
All medical doctors have opportunities to save lives. But only a few take it to a higher, crusading level. Consultant surgeon Godakumbura is one who has been doing it – in hospitals and outside – for over four decades.
His motto is simple yet powerful: Prevention is better than cure.
After specializing in the UK in 1971, he worked for Sri Lanka’s public health service all his career, serving in hospitals in various parts of the island. Wherever he went, he came across hundreds of cases of injury and death caused by assorted accidents – some on the road (which get attention) but also many at home (rarely noticed).
For years, he quietly and diligently worked on treating the injured, saving as many lives and limbs as possible on the operating theatre table. But when the numbers showed no sign of subsiding, he paused to think.
He asked a crucial question: “Where is the sense in preventing disease if we do not also seek to prevent injury that is equally destructive of people’s lives?”
Sadly, few around him shared this commonsense view. Many of his fellow medical and para-medical colleagues were just too busy in the emergency rooms to take a step back and question: what more can be done stem the tide? The health policies themselves were too focused on curing than preventing.
Dr Godakumbura realised that hospital admissions were only part of the story. Some injuries are treated at home, while in the worst case scenarios, people die on the spot.
In all cases, there was much pain, anguish and loss to families and society. Yet, because it was distributed in space and time, policy makers didn’t realise the gravity of the problem.
Instead of cursing the darkness, the good doctor lit a few lamps – literally.
A Safe Bottle Lamp
He initially studied burns – a type of injury that is especially horrendous and maims many survivors for life. He found that at least a third of all burn injuries were caused by unsafe kerosene bottle lamps toppling inside homes and catching fire.
At the time, back in the early 1990s, there were around 1.5 million households in Sri Lanka without electricity supply (it has since come down to around 700,000). Most used one or more bottle lamps for lighting.
Ignorance and negligence combined to cause lamp accidents. There was a clear socio-economic bias: only the poorest households used unsafe, makeshift lamps. And because the victims were poor, and a majority of victims were women and children, the problem attracted little attention. It was a silent and unseen emergency.
Frustrated and outraged, Dr Godakumbura came up with an improved bottle lamp design in 1992. Inspired in part by the ubiquitous Marmite bottle, it was small and squat, with two flat sides – and equipped with a safe metal screw cap to hold the wick. It was topple-proof.
This lamp was a great deal safer than many on the market. After patenting the design, he started mass producing and distributing the lamps under the brand name ‘Sudeepa’ (Sinhala for ‘good light’).It started as a private initiative for a public interest, humanitarian cause. He pooled money from friends, well wishers and foreign embassies. He carried out awareness and outreach work in his spare time, driving around in his own vehicle.
It was an uphill struggle during the first few years, made worse by the widespread scepticism and fatalism. That changed in 1998, when Dr Godakumbura received the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise.
The award brought in not only much-needed funding, but also a higher public profile and international recognition – all useful to thaw societal apathy for the cause. In 2000, he launched the Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation, a non-profit entity, to continue the work.
By now, this surgeon turned inventor and social activist has distributed close to a million safe bottle lamps (most of them for free). The number of burns victims has also come down – thanks, at least in part, to his efforts. This good news story has been featured in global media like BBC, CNN, TIME and Newsweek.
I’ve been following his work for over a decade. In a TV interview earlier this year, I asked Dr Godakumbura how many lives he might have saved. He has no idea — but it must be at least a few hundred. (Watch the interview, in Sinhala, at the end.)
Preventing other injuries
This would have been reward enough for most people, but not for him. In recent years, he has expanded the scope of his preventive work to cover other injuries and accidents.
He doesn’t accept dictionary definitions of accidents being entirely unexpected or unintended. In today’s complex society, many accidents and injuries result from carelessness – in other words, accidents that wait to happen…
Conversely, he believes that raised awareness and heightened alertness can prevent accidents and injuries at home, in workplaces, on the road and everywhere else. The right kind of laws, regulations and their proper enforcement can also help.
Over time, he has seen how people change their unsafe habits – after an initial fuss. It happened with helmets being mandatory for motorcycle riders, and now wearing seatbelts being required in most vehicles.
It’s time to make life-jackets mandatory for all users of boats, rafts and other watercraft, he says. Wearing them can prevent 90% of deaths in boat incidents.
Dr Godakumbura is now actively campaigning on preventing drowning, which kills around 1,050 Lankas every year. Worldwide, it is the second leading cause of accidental deaths, after road accidents.
First Aid for All
For an island nation that loves going to the beach, we sorely lack a water safety consciousness and life-saving arrangements, he laments. Everybody should learn to swim. In the short term, his advice is: “Don’t jump into the water to save a friend unless you can swim!”
And we should all learn basic first aid. Many injuries can be contained – and indeed, lives saved — if those around know just what to do when things go wrong. That includes how to give the Kiss of life (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation, or CPR) to those who are rescued from drowning, while waiting for professional help to arrive.Children are much more prone to injury than adults, because they are naturally curious and have yet to develop instincts of self preservation. Parents, teachers and other grownups are responsible for creating child-safe environments. Simple precautions and mindfulness can avoid so much grief, says Dr Godakumbura, an active member of the National Committee for Prevention of Injuries.
As part of his life long mission, he has recently written a book (in Sinhala) titled ‘Protect Your Child from Injury’. It has 13 chapters on the leading causes of injury – including burns, falls, animal bites, drowning, road accidents and poisoning. Each chapter ends with a list of preventive tips.
At the book launch a few weeks ago, Dr Godakumbura presented copies to two special persons: disability activist Ajith C S Perera and Dr Samitha Samanmali. Both have survived serious injuries and rebuilt their lives. They now campaign for better access and safer environments for all.
Sri Lanka’s war is over, but accidental injuries (from all causes) continue to kill over 12,000 every year — and change the life trajectories of thousands more who survive.
We need more serial life-savers like Dr Wijaya Godakumbura!