Before getting in my morning tuk tuk on the way to the local hospice this morning in Maharagama, I took a while to soak in sunshine. I knew today would be a tough day emotionally but I had prepared well for it, spending the last month filling my cup and gaining emotional strength. I had arranged for the same driver from the day before to get me early in the morning. One thing I have learned traveling is the greatest way to show your appreciation for excellent service is to be a repeat customer. This goes a long way as far as recognizing the locals who are working hard. Leslie, a Sri Lankan gentleman in his 50’s, showed up smiling and full of cheer to take me to go “care for someone.” I couldn’t help but think I hope this would be the case today, immediately deciding no matter what I saw I would smile through it and bring light to the experience. “Madame I am so happy to drive you today, I want to see the Cancer Hospital too….” We chatted about family most of the way riding along in his candy red tuk tuk. He shared how proud he is to be a grandfather and have a daughter at university. Leslie reconfirmed my belief that family is the true heart of this country.
I showed up just before 9am and walked past the front garden area, shaded in mature willowing trees where an elderly unshaven man in a wheel chair was slumped over playing his handheld radio at full volume listening to what I believe was the morning news. He looked up as I passed and smiled welcoming me to his home. I noticed immediately, like most things in Sri Lanka, the facility had an open-air concept, with no glass windows or walls to keep the mosquitos and outside world out. The words “Shantha Sevana Hospice” hung above the wide doorway in big white letters, letting me know I had arrived.
Bamboo curtains outlined the exterior brick walls which sheltered 20 hospital beds inside. There wasn’t a stale odor like I was used to in hospital settings, but instead it smelled like the outdoors and surprisingly fresh. Before I could step foot through the door, a tiny elderly nurse with the most perfectly hand pressed white dress and vintage pointy hat ran out to greet me. Her eyes were the brightest shade of blue I had ever seen and so rare for a Sri Lankan. “Thank you madame for coming! My name is Micerita. Come, come and let me show you around. Very glad you are here and we show you everything today.” She grabbed my hand with excitement, proud to share about her life’s work.
I let out a sigh of relief. I had no idea what to expect or how my presence would be perceived. I had shown up on a referral from the friend of a friend and didn’t have any insight into the facility before arriving. It was obvious they were overjoyed to have me and so I felt comfortable immediately.
We started the days events by walking around each bed where the patients held out their weak hands for my embrace and said a genuine “thank you” to me for being there. They become residents here when treatment was no longer able to save them from the cancer eating away at their frail bodies.
One of the first people I met was a unique young man in his 20’s that was a victim of war and had a severe brain injury. His big brown eyes stared emotionless at the ground and after picking up his hand and giving it a squeeze they opened wider and his mouth reached a half smile. He had lost the ability to speak but he certainly had not lost the ability to feel. I had a white stringed bracelet on my wrist that I had received before entering a Buddhist Temple in Ella and he shared the same bracelet. This lit up his face and we both shared an embrace with our eyes.
The bottom floor was dedicated to male patients and I had the pleasure of greeting all 10 of them. In the corner were three that I will never forget. They lay with plastic feeding tubes taped to their noses, curled in fetal positions with bare upper bodies and the only sign of life being a slight raise in their bony chests. The unit had lost two of them yesterday and I couldn’t help but think I may be spending the final day with one of them today. There were no machines hooked up to these patients, the technology was basic but the love in the air was infectious.
I later went upstairs to the female unit. There were about eight patients, one lady had been there nine years holding onto life and others just a few days. They were each around one another’s beds chatting or laying down letting the hours slip away. They welcomed me with grace and although I couldn’t understand them I could tell it was rare and exciting for them to have a young foreigner around. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be and through toothless giggles and awkward language barriers, they glowed in my presence. When I took their picture they gently held one another’s hands and beamed at me.
I met everyone from the janitors, to the cooking staff, to the caregivers who were crushing pills in stone grinders and doing their best to care for each patient.
I went into the office of the charge nurse, Micerita, and had the opportunity to ask a few questions, although the language barrier made it tough. I let her know I had a passion for elders and end of life, which I could tell was something she was not used to seeing from a young person and lit her face up. She let me know that the Sri Lanka Cancer Society funded the hospice, although they received additional funds from private donors since not all of the expenses were covered. She explained there is no home care in Sri Lanka and this is not something the people like because anything private pay is much too expensive. She was proud to continuously tell me there are no expenses to her residents, that they can live out their final days in peace without worry of money. She let me know in her country families care for one another until this time, which she then joyously went on to tell me about her own home life.
Micerita was in her 70’s and lived with her two adult children and grandchildren, whom she talked about with a huge grin on her sweet wrinkly face. She explained that without living with them she would be very sad. She has been working with cancer patients for 25 years and when she is home she is happy being in their presence and “out of her own head.”
I found this touching and went on to explain home care in America and how often families live far apart and rely on caregivers to come into the home. We chatted a bit longer and then I asked how I could make everyone the happiest today. I learned that the patients loved chocolate cake and don’t get it very often so I immediately went on the street and tuk tuked it to the nearest bakery to buy two big frosted desserts to share with the staff and patients. The whole thing cost me about $8 and the reward I received from it was priceless.
Upon returning, I asked if could serve lunch and they couldn’t wait to share with me the menu for the day! One thing I noticed immediately was although the hygienic standards were low, they delivered the utmost quality of food and respect to their patients. They asked me if I “liked to eat” and unveiled turmeric rice, fried chicken, cabbage and carrot salad, banana cake and yellow potato curry that was to be served. The aroma made me hungry, something I never normally feel in these types of settings. The chefs explained food is all many of the patients look forward to so they try to make it the best. In-between meals they serve coconut pancakes filled with sweet sugar and coconut flesh paired with cinnamon tea. This was far different that my early teenage days of serving food to elders that was tasteless, bland and anything but something you’d look forward to.
They gave me the cart and sent me on my way to the patient floor. I felt honored to go around and pass out the shiny silver trays and coconut waters, for I knew I was receiving far more than I was giving in this moment. One tall and lanky man with an extra large smile scooped up his rice and curry in his hand and with a big toothless smile spitting rice out as he spoke said, “for you, I share.” Although I declined, it was one of those moments that just made you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
After lunch I was drawn to a 78-year-old man named Kamazoda. Unlike the other patients, he was eating his lunch with a spoon and seemed to have a peaceful aura I wanted to get to know more of. I sat in the empty bed across from him, which yesterday housed a patient who had passed. We smiled at each other and I asked if he liked music. He smiled yes and let me know he does not know English and is Sinhalese. I told him I would show him some of my music. For the next two hours I found myself playing for him and the rest of the ward Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Ben Howard, Madeleine Peryoux, Neil Young and Simon and Garfunkle. The sounds echoed beautifully in the room and I sang freely outloud to all. We hummed together, forgetting where we were and being completely present. Kamazoda swayed on the edge of his bed, tapped his tiny hands on his roller table with his worn-out bare feet swinging side to side underneath and closing his eyes. I could tell it’d been a long time since he had heard music as the unit was silent otherwise. Within a few minutes I noticed patients were looking up and grinning. A gentleman with a smile so big it could light up the world waved at me and said “thank you.”
“Keep your head up, keep your heart strong,” blared from my tiny iPhone and I decided to sit between two of the beds in the corner where two gentleman had just been fed their lunch in a tube and were lying in what I could tell was extreme pain. Their dark bare chests revealed every inch of their bones and colorful sarongs were draped across their legs. I grabbed one of their dry and course hands in my left hand and the other in my right. I circled my small thumb around each of their palms and squeezed them both so they knew they were not alone. I stared intently at their chests honestly waiting for the last bit of breath to be released from their failed bodies. I whispered a prayer for God to ease their suffering and use me to bring them comfort in this moment. When I felt a squeeze back on both sides, I thought my heart might explode. Nothing feels greater than having your love received by someone who so desperately needs it. I gave them each arm massages as they closed their eyes and rode the waves of pain, this time not alone. We were in this moment together…
When “Codex” by Radiohead came on I fought back tears and just squeezed tighter. Nothing could take me away. It was almost an outer body experience, one where you are completely frozen by what your reality is, looking down on a moment in time you know you’ll never forget. I found myself whispering to each of them that it was okay to let go and I sang to them peacefully. At one point I had closed my eyes for so long, when I opened them I saw a group of five nurses all sending me their approval through warm and caring stares. I felt like no one was there, just us, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world. We all knew death loomed, but we fought it with love together.
Throughout the day I watched a few families come to visit their loved ones. Each surprised to see an American girl playing calming music and sharing laughter. They embraced my presence and gave me their acceptance through shaking my hand and expressing thanks. The mother of the brain-injured patient came to feed her son out of a banana leaf and give him a sponge bath. Her dedication and love inspired me and she told me I made her son happy. This was the same story of other families who visited, each dedicated to their loved one. One woman looked about my age with her younger husband dying by her side. She was there hugging him and sitting by his bedside in a beautiful green draped dress with only peace on her face. The love between each family I saw filled my heart and made me think again just how important family is at the end of it all, how important love is… the power of love in times of despair is the greatest power we possess as humans.
After serving them afternoon cake, I showed my friend Kamazoda Snapchat filters and he laughed hysterically for hours. He looked like Ghandi in John Lennon glasses and loved seeing us with silly ears and animal noses. He had never seen anything like this and wanted to take a bunch of pictures. During our laughter a group of children arrived in the ward and passed out clean towels as gifts to the patients. Kamazoda made sure I received one too. When in doubt, laugh, laugh hard, laugh confidently. Life needs more of this. No matter where you are, it brings light. I was then gifted a solo concert by Kamazoda, who was so proud to show me his Sinhalese music that he sang to me softly and with deep passion.
The set up here was simple, nothing fancy and no complaints. A clean bed, catheters and mosquito nests for the patients to use at night. They were here to die and the staff was doing the very best they could to keep them comfortable and at peace without the same resources we are used to back at home. There was a small prayer section in the front with statues and candles lit. I knew God was with us and as many beautiful beaches and mountains as I have seen, nothing compares to the beauty I saw in the hearts of those I met. I signed patient diaries by their requests writing my country and a small note for blessings, peace and love to fill their souls.
It was a beautiful end to this unforgettable and life changing journey to Sri Lanka. Volunteering allows you to truly see the heart of the country and respect the culture in a way you would never understand had you only gone surface deep. I am grateful I showed up and carry this experience as fuel for my own life and the way I want to keep spreading love to others. I stayed up late that night thinking about the meaning of life and feeling pure gratitude to be exactly where I am; all the good and the bad that has gotten me here and made me who I am. Some moments in life open your heart and mind a little bit more in a way that can never be reversed or forgotten. This was one of those for me.
To see my pictures and continue to follow my journey, find me on Instagram as “Adventurous_Sole.”