Reaction and Remedy

Channa Jayasekera, medical student


Channa Jayasekera, medical student

Les Todd.

First-year medical student Channa Jayasekera has a morning routine of waking at 7:00, groggily typing in on the laptop by his bed, and scanning the headlines with eyes half open. His routine has not changed since he was a high-school student in Kandy, Sri Lanka, where he grew up and where his father still lives. (Jayasekera moved to the United States in 1999 to attend Cornell University.) But on the morning of December 26, as he was visiting his mother and brother at his brother's home in Vancouver over winter break, Jayasekera was startled awake.

The headlines he read ("Sri Lanka Searches For Survivors," "Eyewitness: Sri Lanka Tsunami," "Sea Surges Kill Thousands") made his heart race, and his hands shook as he picked up the phone to call his father. "He grew up in the city of Galle, a very picturesque, very old town, which was one of the worst affected," Jayasekera says. "It was impossible to get through to him. He finally called us later that night to tell us that some of our relatives--a family of five--were 'unaccounted for.' They had gone to a wildlife reserve by the ocean for the weekend."

Glued to his laptop, Jayasekera forgot about everything else: the neuroscience textbook he was planning to read, the Halo 2 video game he was planning to play. And as the estimates of dead rose by the tens of thousands, he says, "I developed a rather overwhelming desire to do something--something substantial."

But he wasn't sure what. He'd given money to the Canadian Red Cross, yet that somehow seemed too easy, and besides he could only give so much. If he had the funds to do it, he thought, he'd go to Sri Lanka himself. But the ticket cost much more than he could afford, and after all, he wondered, what skills could he offer? What help would he be?

And then an idea came to him. Jayasekera's friend, third-year med student Allison McCoy, is student-leader of a group called "REMEDY at Duke," which collects unused medical supplies and sends them overseas to places in need. "I got a list of the medical supplies appealed for by the Sri Lankan Health Ministry and called Allison to see if we could send some boxes to them," Jayasekera says.

McCoy responded immediately. She gave him access to the warehouse where the boxes are stored and let him repack them according to the list. "It was a huge sorting procedure, in excess of a hundred boxes," Jayasekera recalls. "But we had tremendous support from medical students, mostly first-years."

While his classmates packed up syringes and needles, surgical gloves and catheterization kits, Jayasekera took care of the logistics. He called Sri Lankan Airlines, which agreed to transport the boxes in collaboration with American Airlines, and found a distributor on the ground in Sri Lanka: the National Disaster Relief and Rehabilitation Fund. "They're a very reputable organization," says Jayasekera. "The supplies will be allocated without discrimination in the conflict areas."

Less than two weeks after the tsunami hit, Jayasekera was driving a cargo van, provided by Duke Medical Center's Multicultural Resource Center, full of supplies to New Jersey, where he met officials of American Airlines.

"It wasn't a huge intervention," he says. "It was just something we did very, very fast. In three days, we had it out of here."

"It was just a gut reaction. I kept seeing scenes of places I had been to so many times that were just devastated. And I guess you could say that I made that connection between the two--between a supplier and people in need."

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