March 2-8, 2006
A Promise Kept
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) submitted
Endicott Woman Travels to Sri Lanka Three Times to Aid Sri Lankan Boy
Pirabu Patkunam, an 11-year-old boy in Sri Lanka, is well on his way to speaking clearly after receiving surgery to correct a cleft palate. This small miracle was made possible due to the persistent efforts of Vickie Potochniak, a physician assistant at Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital in Binghamton.
One year ago, Potochniak traveled with a group of physicians, medical students and some non-medical personnel to Sri Lanka to help out with the tsunami relief effort. The volunteers were divided into three teams, and the team that Potochniak was assigned to was sent to staff a clinic in Eachchilampattu, a town in northeastern Sri Lanka. “We were there almost two weeks,” said Potochniak. “The people were extremely poor. We delivered 15 babies. The people were so grateful to have our help, they walked miles and miles in the heat in order to be seen.”
Potochniak felt the need to help out last March after hearing Dr. Suren Pathman at Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital relate his experiences during the tsunami disaster. A native of northeastern Sri Lanka, he had been visiting the area when the disaster hit. After reflecting on what she had heard, Potochniak said, “I saw that so many people needed help and I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Soon after that, the volunteers began to get organized. They gathered supplies and received funding from Potochniak’s church, Union Center Christian Church in Endicott. “The people didn’t want us to go because of the violence associated with the civil unrest in Sri Lanka,” said Potochniak. Potochniak met Pirabu when she and her fellow volunteers visited a two-room orphanage with a thatched roof located near the clinic. The orphanage served as a home for 40 boys, most of whom had lost their parents in the tsunami disaster. “We brought shirts and shoes for the boys,” said Potochniak. “When the headmaster introduced Pirabu to me, he said that Pirabu had a ‘tongue problem.’” The cleft palate had impeded his speech so much that he stumbled over his words. His face was so disfigured, he could eat very little of the small meals that he was fed. He weighed only 36 pounds. “Before I left to go home, I made a promise to Pirabu and his headmaster that I would arrange for surgery to repair Pirabu’s cleft palate,” Potochniak said.
Potochniak kept her promise. Wilson Regional Medical Center in Johnson City donated its facilities to perform the surgery. Dr. Lawrence Kerr and Dr. Samuel Rejo said they would waive their fee for performing the surgery. “I was very happy,” said Potochniak. “I thought Pirabu would get a break.”
There was a feeling of fear and sadness permeating the air in Sri Lanka when Potochniak, along with Lourdes Hospital pharmacist Tom Forrest arrived in July 2005 to take Pirabu back to Binghamton for surgery. The country was on the brink of a civil war. The violence that they witnessed was rooted in ethnic divisions between the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority. The Tamils said they have suffered decades of discrimination at the hands of the politically and economically dominant Sinhalese.
The growth of Sinhalese nationalism in the decades after Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948 alienated many Tamils, eventually spurring calls for a separate homeland in the north and east of the country. The two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 2002. The Tamils relaxed their demand for a separate homeland, but withdrew from peace talks in 2003. Violence has escalated since the end of 2005, prompting fears the island is slipping into war. Potochniak was in dangerous surroundings. She was traveling among land mines and on roads on which others had been killed. Where there had once been dozens of foreign aid workers, now there were almost none. Where Potochniak was once met with open arms, she was now restricted. The clinic where she had previously worked had been shelled by the Sinhalese Army hours after she left. At one point, a group of Singalese boys armed with rocks and grenades surrounded the van she and a Sri Lankan public health worker were driving in.
Pirabu was not able to come to the U.S. for the surgery because the U.S. Embassy refused to give him an exit visa and insisted that the surgery be done in Sri Lanka. Despite assurances from Potochniak that Pirabu would return to Sri Lanka, the Embassy still refused to let him leave the country. After finding the hospital that had been designated by the interviewer at the Embassy, they located a surgeon willing to perform the surgery. But the surgeon refused to operate on Pirabu until he gained at least 10 pounds. Potochniak then contacted Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., hoping to gain an emergency visa for Pirabu. She was unable to get the visa since Pirabu’s condition was “life-altering and not life-threatening.” After Pirabu gained enough weight to have the surgery, Potochniak returned to Sri Lanka to be with him as he underwent surgery.
“When I went the third time I was alone and I had to rely on my faith,” said Potochniak. “I felt pretty alone at the hospital. My mom is my ‘prayer warrior.’ Before I left for Sri Lanka, she handed me an envelope containing cards with a scripture reading on each one. Every day, I would pull one out of the envelope and read it. The reading always seemed appropriate for that day.”
Pirabu’s surgery was completed successfully at the Apollo Hospital in Colombo, about a seven-hour drive from Pirabu’s home. Potochniak was there to support Pirabu throughout his surgery and for four days after he was released from the hospital. “The hardest part of this was saying goodbye,” said Potochniak. “He is very happy. His country is in so much turmoil that when I think about his future, it saddens me. There’s so much to be done there. I’d like to go back, but right now it’s not safe to do that.”