From a silent world to a world of sound
By Rajitha Weerakoon
Hearing aid project launched for the war-affected in NE
It was nothing short of a miracle for those who experienced it. There were tears of joy as around 1,760 northerners and easterners made the journey from a silent world into the world of sound at the Air Force grounds in Colombo recently. Eleven-year-old Rajiv, who had been deaf to the world, broke into dance when he heard the sounds of music for the first time after being fitted with a hearing aid. His overjoyed father said that Rajiv, although he did not hear music earlier had been dancing by watching Michael Jackson on TV.
Sakunthala had lost her hearing during the war and her mother who brought her from Jaffna wished for her only daughter to gain hearing. Her other two daughters had died in the war. Many civilians including former rebels arrived from the once war-stricken north and east — their hearing had been affected by the deafening sounds of the war. With hearing regained, they returned overjoyed, ready to get absorbed into normal life. Each day, for four days, convoys of up to 14 buses, coordinated by the army, brought people with hearing impairment to the project site. They came from Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Anuradhapura and returned the same day with their hearing restored.
The massive humanitarian exercise – the first to take place in Sri Lanka and carried out by the largest hearing aid manufacturer in USA – Starkey Hearing Technologies was initiated by SYNERGEN Health, a healthcare solutions company serving the US healthcare industry, headquartered in Texas. The company is headed by Lankan brothers, Mel and Duminda Gunawardena while the elder brother, Surinda, is at the helm of the global delivery centre in Colombo. It all began when Managing Partners Mel and Duminda attended the Starkey Hearing Foundation Gala in 2011 of their client Starkey Hearing Technologies. Founder Bill Austin and wife Tani who led the Starkey Hearing Foundation with its mission ‘So the World May Hear’ have since 1984, fitted over 1.6 million hearing aids around the globe in an effort to bring the gift of hearing to those in need. The foundation has membership in the Clinton Global Initiative. At the 2011 Starkey Hearing Foundation Gala, the annual fundraising event attended by corporate sponsors, celebrities and former world leaders like President Bill Clinton, many presentations on past and future events around the world had been showcased. Mel and Duminda found to their dismay that Sri Lanka was not part of that map. This made them reach out to Starkey Founder Bill Austin for a mission in Sri Lanka with SYNERGEN Health as the local partner and sponsor. The proposal set off a three-year coordination effort to fund, partner and execute the Sri Lankan mission. The concept besides coincided ideally with the mission of their own company of doing what is right by the community. But as the target of each mission was thousands of patients SYNERGEN Health had to find the right partner in Sri Lanka to pick the recipients and provide the logistics. With the help of Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US at that time, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, they succeeded in obtaining the sponsorship of the army and were directed to Lt. General Daya Ratnayake, the current Army Commander, through President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Lt. General Ratnayake was the Chief of Staff of the Army at the time and was in charge of the rehabilitation of the former rebels. It was on his insistence that the mission targeted the hearing-impaired civilians in the north and east including former rebels as well as army combatants who had lost their hearing during the war, in order to help in the reconciliation efforts. With the necessary arrangements being made by the Directorate of Army Medical Services, a medical team of Starkey Hearing Foundation arrived in June 2014 and along with members of SYNERGEN Health visited the centres in the north and east where they screened the patients, conducted audiograms, registered them and made ear impressions in order to make custom moulds – an exercise which led to the inclusion of Sri Lanka in the Starkey Global Hearing Mission — much to the delight of the SYNERGEN team.
With all systems cleared and on the receipt of the ultra-modern, customized hearing aids in Sri Lanka, 45 members of the Starkey team from around the world arrived a few weeks ago and for four days, assisted by a committed team of SYNERGEN Health Sri Lanka, fitted more than 3,000 hearing aids worth over Rs. 200 million on people who had lost their hearing either due to old age, illness, deafening explosions, trauma or being born hearing-impaired. The Starkey team included sponsors, celebrities including Hollywood movie stars and professional athletes who while giving a helping hand to the medical personnel at the Air Force grounds also boosted the morale of the patients and their families. And what touched them most, they said, were the broad smiles they received from the recipients, which symbolized their deep gratitude for making them hear the sounds of the world.
Included in the package were after care, free batteries for two years and maintenance of the hearing aids for life by Starkey’s local agent Vision Care. Vision Care staff members from branches in the north and east were instrumental in training the recipients on the use and care of their new hearing aids.
At the conclusion of the mission, Mel said it was an honour to partner with Bill and Tani Austin, Starkey Hearing Foundation, the Sri Lankan Army and Vision Care to bring the gift of hearing to thousands of lives besides contributing towards the reconciliation efforts of post-war Sri Lanka. The exercise turned a new leaf in the lives of not only Rajiv and Sakunthala but all 1,760 recipients who included more than 300 children.