Sunday, July 10, 2016

M. S. H. Mohomed is our hero

It all began two years ago. A man called M. S. H. Mohomed wanted his son, diagnosed with a cancerous condition called osteosarcoma, cured. He took his son, Humaid, to a hospital in Chennai. The hospital had facilities and the latest technical expertise, but cost a lot. And so the father spent. Throughout 2014, he sold three of his properties, dug into his pockets, and tried a cure. Nothing worked.

He thus brought his son back to Sri Lanka. He was admitted to a private hospital for six months. Again, the bills kept on mounting and nothing happened, despite two surgeries on his lungs. Desperate and against all odds, his father then admitted him to the National Cancer Institute in Maharagama.

The Institute wasn't privately owned. For someone like M. S. H. Mohomed, it was a last resort you'd run to when you'd run out of options. In other words, a place associated with squalor and lack of quality. The same horror stories associated with every other institution owned by the state, one can add. For Mohomed, though, a few days and weeks were enough to open his eyes. "The doctors were kind, the service was excellent, and the nurses were courteous," he remembers. The same amenities they'd experienced before, minus the cost.

Because of this, he wanted to give back. He wanted to appreciate and let others know. He picked on a key item which the NCI lacked: a PET (Positron Emission Topography) Scanner, used to differentiate between malignant and normal tissue when detecting cancer (something the machines that the Institute had couldn't do). The scanner was available at private hospitals, but for better or worse (I prefer not to take sides) they were and continue to be run at a profit. For this reason, tests were expensive. At the very least, getting a scan at one of those hospitals cost about 150,000 rupees, clearly outside the reach of a great many people.

So Mohomed got to work. He had contacts. He had money. He used both. For the next few months, he drove a campaign which was unparalleled in that it didn't receive the kind of recognition it should have from the government. People responded. Citizens, be they Sinhala, Muslim, or Tamil, got together. Where the government failed, the people delivered. They needed to raise 200 million. Hefty, but not impossible.

Along the way, they got more support. An anonymous donor gave 35 million rupees. A prominent TV station gave airtime and was behind the campaign, proving that the media wasn't as unethical as the government and certain people who support it claimed. At a time when ministers were quibbling over vehicle permits, when the worst bout of floods for decades had come without as much as a proper salvage operation by the government, the people came out. An organisation founded by Mohomed, the Kadijah Foundation, was used to collect funds.

On June 13 the campaign was over. They'd reached 200 million.

Roughly a month later, on Sunday July 10 at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo, the Foundation will hold a seminar on how to take the campaign beyond the PET Scanner. Among those who'll be participating are Dr Palitha Mahipala, Director General of Health Services, and Dr M. Y. K. Wilfraad, Consultant Medical Director at the Cancer Institute. It's more a consciousness-raiser than seminar, and for this reason the discussion won't be limited to what has already been done.

In the meantime, we can reflect.
It's a shame that PET scans hadn't (until now) been available at the one place where the poor could have afforded them, but now's not the time to delve into that. What's important is what M. S. H. Mohomed taught us. What's important is the afterword it compels. And how we can be part of that afterword. The Foundation didn't end with the PET Scanner, let's not forget, and there's no reason to think that it will.

There are tons of things wrong with this country. Lots of things. Starting with ourselves. We laugh at and condition ourselves to ignore tragedy. What doesn't affect us doesn't move us. Politicians are no better, not even when they're directly elected. But at a time of need, when we ought to set aside differences and come out, we almost always do. Not because we're driven by a need for popularity, but because the movement catches on so well that it makes us forget ourselves even for a minute.

In the meantime, our government pretends not to know what's going on. Typical. We have officials, after all, who complain about aching spines to sugarcoat their demands for luxury vehicles, who lambast the media and then self-righteously say that the government already has ordered PET Scanners (without as much as substantiating that claim). Ministers don't feel the people, not because they can't but because when they are in need of something (be it healthcare or education), they have the best and get the best.

On the other hand, the best they get needn't be the best we should get. As M. S. Mohomed has testified, the Cancer Institute is as good a hospital as you can get anywhere else. That you can get every service free of charge doesn't mean there's lack of quality. The role of citizenry should be to improve on what we already have. Not build something we can't.

I think the man who spearheaded this campaign says it best: "We should upgrade the Institute. We should get together and improve this place so that others can come here and get a better service. Why waste millions of rupees on private institutions when you can get the same standard for free, after all?" Sri Lankans, I feel, are woefully shortsighted in their appreciation of what they have, but as time goes by I'm sure they'll understand. After all, we have about 15,000 to 25,000 people diagnosed with cancer every year. About 13,000 were diagnosed at the Cancer Institute alone in 2015. I'm sure some of them would prefer to go to private institutions, but for the rest (the vast majority) that's not an option. We clearly need a solution. And we are on our way to finding one.

Which is why M. S. H. Mohomed is a hero. Our hero. A citizen of the world and Sri Lanka, someone who chose to do something for his people. He taught us many things and along the way made it clear that there's much more we need to do. On that count, he wins my respect. As he should yours.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at