December 29 The Citizen Milton Keynes

Words that changed Dr Tush's life

IT was Boxing Day morning and Bletchley GP Tush Wickramanayaka was lounging in a luxury hotel in Tumisia, enjoying a Christmas break with her family.

 The words that were to change her and her family's life came out of the blue, in the form of a phone call to her mother in her native Sri Lanka.

 "The sea is rushing to the shore," said her worried mother. "No-one is sure what is happening."

 Within hours the scenario was sickeningly apparent. The sea was indeed rushing to the shore - in a giant tsunami wave that was to kill 44,000 people, half of them children, and render a million more homeless.

 "It was terrible," recalls Tush, who moved to Britain 12 years ago. "All thoughts of our holiday were forgotten and we sat, riveted to the television, watching the news.

 "All I wanted to do was go out there, to Sri Lanka, to offer my services as a doctor, but there were no flights. I felt so helpless."

 The family returned to Milton Keynes and Tush and her husband, contracting company boss Gary Cutter, continued to call the authorities, begging to be allowed to help.

 While other people sent cheques and donations of aid, Tush and Gary pondered carefully. They wanted to do something life-changing, something huge and something specifically for children and the obvious choice was something medical.

 "The officials sent us a 20 page list... basically the whole country needed rebuilding. They needed everything."Tush knew there was only one children's hospital in Sri Lanka in Colombo.

 Sadly she discovered that the reason so many children died in the tsunami was the lack of appropriate medical facilities.

 "A lot of the children were rescued from the water but they had nowhere to take them and no resuscitation equipment. It truly was a case that these deaths could have been prevented," she said.

 "The obvious thing to build was a hospital - a hospital specially for the children of Sri Lanka and dedicated to the memory of the children who died in the tsunami."

 The seed of an idea, once planted, grew and grew.

 Soon Tush and Gary were spending every waking minute, between bringing up their child and working at their jobs, planning, researching and organizing their own mammoth fund raising campaign.

 They set up their own charity, Children's Hospital Tsunami Appeal Fund (CHTAF), with the target of raising an incredible three to four million pounds to build and equip an entire hospital.

 They chose their site in an area called Kalatara - Tush's home region where there was an existing tsunami-damaged and dilapidated general hospital, bursting at the seams with sick and injured patients.

 Tush discovered that 20,000 children had been seen in Accident and Emergency during 2004. The mortality rate was high and there was one crowded pediatric ward where children were occupying every inch of floor space.

 "We decided to build a modern 300 bed children's hospital in the grounds. It would have specialist medical care, counseling services for the tsunami victims, play areas and even school rooms," she says, matter of factly.

 Incredibly it took less than three months for the dream to start becoming a reality. In March Tush and Gary flew to the island with the first monies from their fundraising campaign, to negotiate with the authorities.

 It was a sign of Tush's steely determination that she had sold her beloved 17,000 Mercedes car to boost the coffers. She and Gary's family had also added thousands of their own money.

 But, she says; as soon as she saw the tsunami-ravaged island she knew she would never regret a single penny.

 'It is sad and shocking. Signs of destruction are evident and rubble is everywhere,' Tush wrote in her diary when she arrived.

 Later she describes the meetings with local officials to finalize the hospital plan: 'It has been an emotional roller coaster ride - success one day and more hurdles the next.'

 Twelve days later the news was more positive: the first foundation stone for the new hospital was laid.

 'Overwhelmed by the welcome. Welcomed by garlands and traditional beetle leaf offering and escorted by a procession of dancers,' reads the diary entry.

 'This has been a memorable day - the same feeling as a child being born; our dreams fulfilled and all our efforts worth it,' it continues.

 But there was barely time to enjoy the moment. For it was back to Milton Keynes to raise more funds to pay for every single brick, every bed and every piece of equipment the new hospital would need.

 "People have been wonderful but we still need to raise much more," says Tush, who has been supported by organizations, businesses and former patients from all over Milton Keynes and Leighton Buzzard.

 Today the fund stands at 85,000 but they need to reach the magic 100,000 figure before building can start.

 "We have spent every weekend fundraising and every evening planning. Sometimes progress is slow but every penny counts," said Tush.

 In July she and Gary wrote 3,000 letters, one to every business in Milton Keynes, asking for support.

 "We personally licked every envelope and every stamp and we were optimistic. But we have not had one single reply. That was a real setback," said Tush.

 This Christmas they have cancelled their holiday plans to concentrate on fundraising so building work can start in the New Year.

 "We are urging people to help us in any way they can. We will not give up until this hospital is built," said Tush.

 Anyone interested in donating can view the charity's website on www.chtaf.org or call Tush on 07765 247828.