Humanitarian Health Action

I wanted to help save as many lives as I could

Dr N. Sivarajah, Coordinator of the WHO Unit in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Dr N. Sivarajah Coordinator of the WHO Jaffna Unit in Sri Lanka
Dr N. Sivarajah Coordinator of the WHO Jaffna Unit in Sri Lanka

Dr N. Sivarajah, Coordinator of the Jaffna Unit of the World Health Organization in Sri Lanka, has lived and worked in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna for over 30 years. For many years he worked as a Professor of Community Medicine at Jaffna Medical College before heading WHO’s Jaffna office. Jaffna had been at the heart of the Asia’s longest running conflict, between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government, which ended last year after 25 years. In those years, the city and district has been ruled, at various times, by the LTTE, by the Indian Peacekeeping forces, and by the Sri Lankan army. Through it all, Dr. Sivarajah was focused on one goal, “ I wanted to help save as many lives of the people as I could.”

This was not always easy, especially in the highly sensitive situation. But through his dedication to work, he gained the trust of the people. Health facilities were limited, and there were not enough doctors, as most qualified people emigrated. He often traveled to rural areas, making assessments to highlight the problems of malnutrition especially among children. “Often the male members of the family would be missing due to the ongoing conflict, leaving women and children vulnerable,” he recalls.

Access to facilities, he feels, was one of the biggest challenges for patients. He remembers a time when once of his pregnant patients developed complications and urgently needed to be admitted to hospital. But it was dark, and a curfew was in place. The mother and baby died of a ruptured uterus. It took quite an effort to convince the authorities and start an emergency ambulance service (which was not in existance at that time). Since the start of the "Emergency Ambulance Service" maternal deaths due to lack of transport has decreased.

“I have often been asked why I didn’t leave Jaffna. But this is my home, and the satisfaction I have got from my work with the people here will be hard to match anywhere else,” he says.