A new purpose for a mission of mercy


Harford County doctor Joseph Angelo had planned for months to fly Thursday to his native Sri Lanka, on a three-week mission to help build rudimentary medical clinics in the impoverished Asian nation.

That mission of charity was drastically altered - and made more urgent - by the tsunami that slammed the country a week ago.

He intended to help build about a dozen clinics. But now he and his colleagues will minister to the nearly 1 million people there who lost loved ones or livelihoods in the tsunami that struck Dec. 26.

"Every night, I watch TV and I cry," Angelo, 44, said. "They went from zero to negative."

Sri Lanka, about the size of West Virginia, has been devastated by an ethnic civil war between the mainly Hindu Tamils in the north and east and the largely Buddhist Sinhalese, who control much of the country. A tenuous truce has been in place since 2002.

The war, which began in 1983, wiped out much of Sri Lanka's infrastructure, and much of it - often in Tamil-held territory - has not been rebuilt. One in four Sri Lankans live in poverty.

Last week's surging waves swept away fishing villages and cities along the north and east coast. Sri Lanka was the second-hardest-hit country, with international aid agencies estimating that as many as 41,000 Sri Lankans have died, about 750,000 are without homes and hundreds of thousands more are unaccounted-for. They believe, too, that most of the dead and displaced are Tamil.

Angelo said his Sri Lankan colleagues had reported last week that no aid had reached much of Tamil-controlled areas, although President Chandrika Kumaratunga vowed to work with the separatists. Relief organizations such as the International Committee for the Red Cross and Lutheran World Relief reported that some supplies were getting through.

"I have no enemies," Angelo said. "Human life is invaluable."

His friends and family in Sri Lanka are safe, he added, although he has been unable to contact two cousins by phone.

His father, a bookkeeper, athlete and skilled hunter, never taught his son to swim, although the ocean was about 200 yards from their house on the Jaffna peninsula. He never showed his son how to handle a gun. According to Angelo, his father believed nothing should distract his son from the profession of medicine.

Angelo's fate was sealed in the early 1970s after his younger sister underwent minor heart surgery. He admired the surgeons who saved her. They were his heroes, and he wanted to be like them.

He treats everyone like family - staff and patients alike, said Brian Klausmeyer, administrator for Mariner Health of Forest Hill nursing home, where Angelo sees patients.

"I visited him at his office earlier [last] week and ... he took a few minutes out of his time between patients to see me. That says a lot about the man," he said.

At 5 feet, 3 inches and about 140 pounds, Angelo is an intense, high-energy man who gets by on about four hours' sleep. He sees patients at two local nursing homes and at his office.

He has been known to open his doors long after office hours are over to accommodate patients. He'll see patients even when they cannot afford to pay him.

Angelo's family fled Sri Lanka when war broke out. He studied medicine in India. His father and his mother, a former English teacher, worked blue-collar jobs in Canada to put him through medical school.

He joined them in Toronto in 1990, obtained Canadian citizenship and later left for Michigan for his residency and first job as a physician.

In 2000, an old college mate, Sinnarajah Raguraj, called him. The two had left Sri Lanka in their 20s, and they shared a goal of aiding their war-torn country.

Now, Raguraj was asking: Could Angelo help cover his Bel Air rounds?

Angelo agreed, a sense of duty binding him to his old friend. But he also saw new opportunities in Harford County: to grow as a doctor, to create a better life for his family, to find independence to begin humanitarian work he dreamed of.

For four years, he assisted Raguraj while he worked full time as a physician for Landmark Medical Group. In September, he opened his own practice one floor above his friend in the professional building on South Atwood Road.

Meanwhile, Raguraj founded a charitable nonprofit called International Medical Health Organization, designed to bring medical aid to Sri Lankan refugees. Angelo became his self-described right-hand man.

The goal is to upgrade the Sri Lankan health care system, beginning with an ambitious project to build 15 clinics. That project was to begin this month, and Angelo planned to close his practice for three weeks, leaving behind his wife and three children.

Then came the news of the tsunami.

Within hours, members of IMHO decided instead to send a rotation of 40 doctors in three teams to aid relief efforts. The doctors hope to take along a cache of medical supplies, including blood-pressure machines, antibiotics, syringes, intravenous fluids, anti-diarrheal medicine and vaccines to prevent cholera and other communicable diseases.

After landing in the capital, Colombo, they'll be working long hours in one of the five hardest-hit areas in the north and east regions. Angelo said that in all his experience as a doctor and a victim of civil war he has never seen such devastation.

He hopes the media images he's reviewed have numbed him against the reality of the destruction.

"I know I'll cry, but I'll recover," he said.

He plans to return to Harford County to build his practice and volunteer for IMHO. While he may return to Sri Lanka to continue his charitable work, he is resigned to the fact that he might never again live in his country. He said he would return only when Tamils achieve full independence.

"My job now is to help people survive," he said.

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