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Paul Scally is a driving force behind a medical squad from Evelina specialist hospital dedicated to saving children in Sri Lanka

By Nicola Jordan

To Gills fans, he is the hard-nosed chairman who steered the club through the choppy waters of professional football for more than 20 years.

But few will know that Paul Scally is also one of the driving forces behind a medical squad dedicated to saving the lives of children in Sri Lanka.

Once a year a 15-strong team from the Evelina specialist hospital give up a week of their spare time to perform surgery on desperately sick youngsters, most between the age of one and five.

A sick child at the hospital in Sri Lanka
A sick child at the hospital in Sri Lanka

The Take Heart Mercy Mission is led by prominent heart surgeon Conal Austin and leading cardiologist John Simpson and is the football club’s chosen charity.

The partnership is particularly special to Mr Scally, whose son Elliott died from heart complications when he was just 39 weeks old.

“This year we operated on 20 children and 19 survived, which is wonderful. But even though the family know their child is very sick and they are having high risk surgery it is nevertheless devastating if one does not make it through." - Paul Scally

He has just returned from one of several trips he has made to the Karapitaya Hospital in Galle, where he takes on the role of family liaison officer.

Mr Scally said: “This year we operated on 20 children and 19 survived, which is wonderful. But even though the family know their child is very sick and they are having high risk surgery it is nevertheless devastating if one does not make it through.

“It’s a difficult time for any family to face especially if they cannot afford a funeral. We as a charity help out with the costs.

Fortunately, most are philosophical and believe their child has gone to a better place.”

It is estimated that 2,500-3,000 children are born with a congenital heart disease every year in Sri Lanka. Most of them will need either surgical or catheter based treatment within the first year of their life. Unless treated in a timely manner some of them will not live to see their first birthday and a majority will die before they reach adulthood.

Mr Scally said: “There are specialists there, but they are working flat out and just can’t keep up.”

Evelina’s volunteer anaesthetists, intensive care nurses and theatre staff have a gruelling schedule starting at 7am, and they performed on average three operations day, some lasting up to five hours.

Mr Scally said: “This is remarkable when you think that in this country they perform between six and seven a week.”

Gillingham FC chairman Paul Scally
Gillingham FC chairman Paul Scally

The medics helping the children overseas are the same as those who battled to save Mr Scally’s son Elliott with his heart problems in 2004.

He said: “It was a battle that unfortunately they lost. But a battle that left a lasting impression on me as to the dedicated and compassionate work they do, day in and day out, often without any recognition.

“So for me it is an honour to now help them and help others, and I’m sure anyone who has experienced a situation similar to my own will understand my motives.

“I have been humbled by my experiences and feel privileged to work with such a group of people. I know Elliott would have been proud.”

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