More than a million Sri Lankans have been affected by the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster, and more than half of them were children. Thousands have lost one or both parents, or are suffering from post-traumatic stress.
But in a country of 18 million, there are few psychiatrists, and even fewer trained to treat children.
That’s why Dr. Esti Galili and a small group of fellow Israelis are playing a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s recovery. Their delegation, invited by the country’s minister of health, has been training doctors at the University of Colombo Medical School, offering their expertise in helping victims emerge healthy from the horror.
“The idea was to do one-day workshops,” said Galili, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem.
In a phone interview from the capital city of Colombo, Galili said she and her colleagues are participating in separate workshops for psychiatric workers, pediatricians, medical students and volunteers.
“We are working eight or nine hours a day sharing our experiences with evaluating and treating trauma,” she said, something Israelis know all too well after years of suffering terrorist blasts and other violent attacks.
The five-member Israeli team, which also includes the chief psychiatrist of the Israel Defense Forces and an official of the Ministry of Health — Galili is the only child psychologist on the mission — was invited by Sir Lanka’s health minister. They arrived shortly after the tsunami and were to return to Israel this week. (Four medical doctors from Hadassah hospital were sent to Sri Lanka after the Sri Lankan government refused a much larger delegation.)
The Israelis are not dealing directly with the victims.
“The idea is to empower the people here and give them our knowledge and supervision, not to come here and treat the children,” said Galili, 48, a Jerusalem native. “They are very capable of doing that. The doctors here are very highly trained.”
The team has spent its time in Colombo, which was not affected by the tsunami, but did pay a visit to one site of destruction — the coastal city of Galle — shortly after arriving.
“There is no way to describe it,” Galili said. “There is mile after mile of wreckage, but it is not blackened, like with a bomb, just clean from water.”
The Israeli team was impressed with the speed of the Sri Lankan recovery effort.
“They managed to bury the dead, the refugees are in camps where they are getting food, water and shelter,” Galili said. “We did not go into the main camps. That is not our mission. There are people from UNICEF and other organizations doing that.”
The crisis in Sri Lanka has prompted the government to address the severe shortage of mental health care professionals, said Galili.
“They are planning to train many more doctors, as well as community leaders, social workers and volunteers to do some work,” she said. “We are very willing to help. It’s a matter of planning together with them, trying to find the means to train people quickly on different levels.”
In Israel, she notes, mental health workers are also in short supply — only some 200 child psychiatrists serve a population of 6 million.
Treating survivors of terror attacks, as well as child abuse victims and the seriously ill at Hadassah, is a far cry from dealing with children caught in the unexpected horror of the tsunami. But Galili said the experiences are useful to the Sri Lankan trainees.
“There are similarities,” she said. “We give lectures, we also discuss cases. They actually ask us about [cases] to make it more relevant to them.”
The Sir Lankan doctors she is assisting, most of them educated in England or Australia, have been warmly receptive, with no discussion of politics.
“They are very generous, modest and appreciative of what we are doing,” Galili said.
She estimates that about 70 percent of the population is Buddhist and 15 percent Hindu, with the rest mostly split among Christians and Muslims. There is no significant Jewish community. Nevertheless, Galili said those she has encountered seem to draw inspiration from the Jewish experience.
“They make the connection to the Holocaust,” she said. “One of the doctors told me, ‘the Jewish people survived the Holocaust, so it’s possible for us to survive this horrible trauma.’”