Indira Jayasuriya –
You can shed tears that she is gone,
Or you can smile because she lived,
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love that you shared
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she is gone,
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on,
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.
This was a poignant poem shared by Dr. Lanka Dissanayake and it spoke volumes to the mission of alleviating the lives of cancer patients in Sri Lanka; a mission which was spawned at the passing of her beloved sister Indira -a vibrant and beautiful young lady who had a zest for life and glow which can never be diminished even after her demise.
Embodiment of Courage
The first time I heard of Indira was on social media, as the story of the young mother who opted to go ahead with her pregnancy, despite the risk of losing her life due to the cancer she was battling, went viral. Her smile and eyes would light up the screen while her testimony spoke volumes of the unconditional and self-sacrificial love of a mother. While she made an impact among her loved ones during her lifetime, she has continued to create a revolution in all corners of the country and the world despite succumbing to her battle with the deadly disease. Ultimately one can rest assured that Indira did win and continues to gain victory through the Indira Cancer Trust (ICT) which was founded in order to give all cancer patients; irrespective of caste or creed, gender or age a new lease on life.
It is easy for us to give rise to depression or vent in rage at the unfairness of life when a loved one dies before their time or under tragic circumstances but Indira’s parents, Hon. Minister Karu Jayasuriya, his wife and her elder sister Dr. Lanka channelled their grief into a magnanimous movement which has given hope to those who were drowning in despair due to the lack of available resources to combat the many additional burdens that would be the plight of a cancer patient and their families in the past.
Since the discovery of the disease in the island, there have been numerous philanthropic efforts to give a semblance of hope to the patients but ICT has taken it to another level by reaching out to all and sundry; from the blue chip companies, prominent individuals to religious entities, educational bodies and much more in order to promulgate interactive sessions with the patients themselves.
Giving them a Reason to Smile-
A continuous hair donation programme – A global first
Although almost everyone was aware of the fact that chemotherapy causes hair loss, it was not until ICT brought the hair donation programmes on a mass scale, involving the famous Ramani Fernando Salons that each person realized that wigs were imported from abroad and some folk would actually send their hair overseas and the cost of a wig was exorbitant. The campaign titled ’Your Hair Can Help Someone Who no Longer has Hair’ was officially launched on 20th of July 2017.
Lalith Dharmawardene, the only human hair wig maker in Sri Lanka, with 49years of experience in making wigs for the Sinhala and international cinema was drawn to this benevolent venture due to his personal loss. “My mother passed away due to cancer, which has led me to do whatever I can for all cancer patients. I believe that the launch of ICT will provide a panacea for the ills (physical and psychological) faced by the patients and their kith and kin,” revealed he.
The sole designer of wigs made from human hair in Sri Lanka was quick to provide his expertise to ICT and design the wigs which were made from hair collected by donors islandwide, through the Ramani Fernando Salons and various workshops held intermittently.
I received a media invitation for the first ever wig donation event which was placed on the head of 13 year old Priyashanthi from Pudaluoya.Her eyes lit up as she realized that going back to school would not be cause for ridicule and shame. “I could not bear the thought of returning to school without my hair and now I have a reason to smile,” revealed the little girl. At the event I was told that many young mothers often experience depression as their own children express revulsion or fear at seeing their baldness. These are a few examples of why it is imperative to produce wigs for our very own people. The cost of producing a wig in SL is merely Rs.25,000/- and can be sponsored by any interested party as the wigs are given free of charge to the patients. It is a meticulous process which requires a great deal of sacrifice and patience as each strand has to be inspected, “stated Lalith, who produces twelve wigs each month for ICT.
Following the donation process is the arduous task of labelling the hair and categorizing it prior to sending it to the designer.
Each donor be it a male or female have a story as well as many have either lost a loved one to cancer or simply wish to make a change.
The recipient of the wig has to undergo counselling sessions on how to maintain the wig and receive follow up calls and given the opportunity to correct the wig in case of damage.
“These workshops and appeals for donations have spurred our Sri Lankans into prompt action,” stated Dr. Lanka.
Cancer Helpline – Another first
Another pioneering effort by the ICT is the establishment of the first ever Cancer Helpline (0112 363 211) which is accessible to those who wish to obtain information about cancer related matters. Open seven days a week from 7:15am to 6:45 pm.
Creative sparks – inspirational mementos
While all the patients in the Apeksha Hospital are given a special lunch annually in memory of Indira on her birthday which falls on 26th September, each patient is made to feel special through various programmes conducted through ICT; musical sessions, various religious programmes, yoga sessions and counselling among others. The Art and Craft sessions are especially designed for the younger patients and gives corporates or any interested parties the ability to interact with some of the little ones and assist them in resonating their creative spark. This was a programme which I personally participated in, along with some church members who learned that cancer does not have to be a full stop as the little children showed eons of courage and resilience despite the pain that their tiny bodies endured on a daily basis. They wore masks but we could see the brightness in their eyes and hear the hope in their voices and the joy they felt in being able to create an inspirational memento.
ICT have also encouraged patients to use their capabilities to design items such as cards, soft toys etc., to be sold in order to generate an income for each person or raise funds for various development opportunities for cancer patients.
A selfless love
Speaking to Dr. Lanka gave me a glimpse of who Indira was as a person. The two sisters shared a unique bond which grew during their life overseas. We were a close knit family and the two us led sheltered lives. While Dr. Lanka returned to Sri Lanka, Indira pursued a life and career in UK, eventually meeting her soul mate Martyn Dicker. She was a vegan, mainly due to her excessive love for animals. She thrived in every area of her life and wore a signature smile which was contagious. She was moved by kindness and love for people as well and went out of her way to ensure the happiness of another human being, which is what was apparent even during her suffering. She was the epitome of selfless love and that is the mantra ICT is based on.
A platform for volunteers
ICT functions as a platform for volunteers to assist as the orientations are conducted periodically which could make volunteers aware of how best they could contribute towards lighting a candle in the midst of darkness.
The ICT head office is situated a few hundred feet away from the Apeksha hospital and exudes a cosy-home like ambience with propaganda pertaining to their vision, mission, the programmes and anecdotes and information about Indira being displayed.
“Our response is based on the individual need and is never overlooked,” added Dr. Lanka.
A noteworthy fact is the magnitude of volunteers who have joined the force to quell the despair that threatens to rise. They do so by continuously being in touch with the patients and their needs through the vast network of hope-filled programs and workshops conducted by ICT.
By Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne