Saturday Magazine

The baby hospital
by Nadeera Seneviratne and Nimna Edirisinghe
Pix by Siripala Halwala

Babies’ screams rent the air. The women, some heavily pregnant and others after successful deliveries, may look anxious, weak and/or radiant. Even more anxious may be the young men. When they pass through the door of the De Soyza Hospital for Women, looking over them all is Charles de Soyza, his picture garlanded these days for the 125th anniversary of the hospital that falls on December 13.

He’s seen a lot of babies, the hospital being the second oldest maternity hospital in Asia (the oldest is in India). The De Soyza Lying-in-Home (as it was first named) was set up in 1879, initiated by Sir Charles Henry de Soyza by personal donation of property and funds for women who are deprived of the facility of safe care in hospital during childbirth.

History records that royal patronage ensured free health care for our people while maintaining the status of women in high esteem, says Prof. Harsha Seneviratne of the academic unit of the hospital. With the advent of colonial rule in its maturity under the British a couple of hundred years ago, this ancient wisdom was overrun by western type health care. The De Soyza Hospital belongs to this later introduction, as do the majority of health services in the country, and has a special function of assisting in the delivery of babies safely.

Most of the maternity cases at this tertiary care institution are high risk cases, and among those born there may be many who battled through birth and grew up to do exemplary service to the country. The hospital authorities do not at present have a figure for the total number of births in the hospital from its inception in 1879, but this figure may well have reached a million births already.

Starting with 52 births in 1879, the hospital now records 13,000 to 15,000 births of which around 5000 are caesarean births per year. The first caesarean birth to be performed in Sri Lanka was in the De Soyza Hospital in 1905.

In 1879, it had 22 beds, 433 in 1947 and after its branch hospital, the Castle Street Hospital for Women was set up in 1950 to reduce the burden on the De Soyza Hospital, the number of beds has been reduced to 343. The hospital has ten wards.

The present number of beds, says the oldest serving matron at the hospital, Chief Nursing Officer B. P. J. Seneviratne, is sufficient—for the number of indoor patients only rarely exceeds it. In some wards, they may have to temporarily bunk on a mat, but this is not for long, she said. Seneviratne said what the hospital needed was quarters for the nurses and midwives; quite obviously, the nursing staff must be effectively on call.

Many women from Colombo Central, Wattala, Kelaniya, Biyagama, Negombo and Peliyagoda areas attend the hospital, acting director of the hospital Dr. B. G. A. Vidyathilaka said. Some high risk cases are also sent to the hospital from as far as Monaragala and Trincomalee.

However, it’s more than a maternity hospital. It’s also a hospital for women’s health, and provides training in midwifery (1909), nursing (1916) and in Obstetrics and Gynaecology for medical students (1915). The De Soyza Lying-in-Home commenced the first operating theatre in 1917 and the first Ante Natal Clinic in Asia was set up there in 1921 (incidentally, the first in the world was set up just eleven years before in England). Its first medical superintendent was Dr. (later Sir) Marcus Fernando, appointed in 1887.

Dr. Vidyathilaka said the hospital needs more sophisticated technology. "For instance, the Dopplar scan for which we have just received funds (approximately Rs. 10 million) can examine the flow of blood to the baby inside the womb. Through this we can determine whether the baby is at risk of dying inside the womb. This will be set up next year."

"As the De Soyza hospital provides training for postgraduates of the PGIM in Obs and Gyn, we also need to provide them training in Laparoscopic surgery," Vidyathilaka said. Through this, he said, doctors could not only look inside the body by insertion of the Laparoscope, but also carry out surgery without opening up the body. Among the government hospitals, Kalubowila and Castle Street have this technology, he said.

"We also need a third operation theatre for emergency surgery, an anaesthetic machine and the services of a physician within the hospital. At present, we have to send for a physician from the resident doctors of the General Hospital. This is inconvenient and causes delays in treatment," Vidyathilaka said.

The De Soyza Hospital for Women won the Taiki Akimoto 5S Award in 2003 for Best 5S Implementation in the service sector. Awarded by the Japan Sri Lanka Technology and Cultural Association, "5S" stands for clearing up, organising orderliness, cleanliness, standardising, and training and disciplining. This message is put on nurses’ notice boards in the hospital. "We won this award due to the hard work of our director, Dr. V. S. P. Pannila, who has headed the hospital for the last ten years," Dr. Vidyathilaka said. The De Soyza Hospital was also declared a "Baby Friendly Hospital" by UNICEF and the Government of Sri Lanka in 1992.

Dr. Vidyathilaka said he did not know of any well-known personalities who had been born there, when asked. This may be an interesting aspect, perhaps this data may be revealed in the study of the available statistics of child births at the De Soyza Hospital that the Japanese government has agreed to fund. "In well maintained records at the hospital of births, you find all the information of births and their details since the 1920s," Director, Tertiary Service, P. A. Maheepala said.

Dr. Pannila, director of the hospital who is at present on leave, said they had planned to look into this aspect by advertising in the papers for all those who had been born in the hospital, or know of people who were born there, to come forward. It is possible, she said, that even someone born around 1915 in the hospital is still alive, s/he may be the oldest living person born in the hospital.

The celebrations for the 125th anniversary are on a somewhat lower key than planned. A three-day medical exhibition, seminar for doctors, nurses and midwives and book souvenir had been planned, but following Dr. Pannila’s leave of absence pending an inquiry, the celebrations are to be on a considerably lower scale.

The hospital will issue a stamp and first day cover today (December 11) to commemorate its anniversary. It will also commemorate Sir Charles de Soyza, who has done a noble service for the people by initiating four other hospitals as well, namely, the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital, and the Panadura, Lunawa and Marawila hospitals. The De Soyza hospital must also commemorate all those who have served the hospital with dedication, from attendant to midwife to nurse and to all the specialists and consultants who have served the hospital by placing the patient before self.

 

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