Life at “Jeewaka”

My Life at Jeewaka

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                                                        By Dr. N.D. Amerasekera

“Jeevaka” was the most celebrated doctor in India during Buddha’s time. He was Buddha’s physician. Hence Jeewaka is a great name for a Buddhist Medical Hostel.

Spiritually, all through my adult life I have been a drifter and a nomad, born under a wandering star. I first saw life as a Christian in a family not too enamoured with the rights and rituals of religion. I was, thus, allowed to roam free to choose my own path and philosophy. I began to question the presence of a supreme creator reading the origin of the species by Charles Darwin as a teenager. As a young medical student when I saw the suffering of the masses in the General Hospital Colombo, that was the final straw. This nomadic drift should not be confused with a lack of respect for values and beliefs. Despite all this I have the greatest respect for Christianity for teaching me how to lead a good and righteous life as a kid growing up in a rapidly changing world. Even now when I sit in a Church it gives me a warm feeling of love for humanity as we all walk this long and tortuous journey we call life.

Living at Wattala I travelled daily from Hunupitiya to Maradana by train with a happy band of medical students. The journey during the height of the rush hour had standing room only. It was both tiring and time consuming. Chatting with other medics made the journey bearable. In my wisdom I convinced my parents I should move to the Jeewaka Buddhist Hostel in Turrett Road to allow more time for study. They agreed too easily. There was then no formal application process for Jeewaka. I made my intentions clear to my friend RN de S Amarasekera, then an honourable senior. I think at the time there were 20 students at Jeewaka. My informal application was rejected out of hand as they didn’t want Christians. Although dejected and disappointed I never gave up hope. I explained to RN de S my complex spiritual existence and my philosophy being closer to Buddhism than any other. I am grateful he had the belief and the courage to accept my word. He fought hard with the Jeewaka hierarchy to allow my entry into the brotherhood.

There was a resurgence of our heritage and values after independence from British Rule. A small band of Buddhist Medical Students, circa 1962, approached Prof RP Jayawardene to provide a safe haven for Buddhist students. Unlike at Peradeniya students from far away who joined the faculty had no hostel accommodation. With determination, tenacity and perseverance their dream was realised and the Jeewaka Buddhist hostel was born. The good Prof became its first Warden. The pioneers who founded Jeewaka were:

Dr L U Abeyasiri, Plastic Surgeon, UK
Dr R N D S Amarasekera, GP, UK
Dr D P Athukorale, Consultant Cardiologist, Sri Lanka Dr Hema De Silva, USA
Dr L C De Silva
Dr Ubhaya Dias,, New Zealand (Passed away 2002)
Dr Titus Dissanayake, Consultant Geriatrician, UK
Mr Sumith Fonseka, Thorasic Surgeon, UK
Dr G R W Godakumbura, Consultant Surgeon, Sri Lanka

Dr H P Gunawardena, Psychiatrist, USA
Dr D V J Harischandra, Consultant Psychiatrist, Sri Lanka Dr Herath, USA
Dr A K C A Jayasena, UK
Dr Karunapala, Consultant Psychiatrist, UK
Dr Bernie Peris, Former GP, UK (Passed away 1999)
Dr Rajapakse, Sri Lanka (Died ….)
Dr Ajith Silva, Radiologist, Australia

We salute them. The hostel was housed in a large two storey building opposite the Liberty Cinema. A short distance away was the busy Galle Road and the deep blue waters of the Indian ocean.

When I stepped into that house I felt at home instantly. The hostellers were a friendly bunch. To my good fortune several of my batchmates – LPJM Wickramasinghe, Sanath de Tissera and Upali Wijeratne (alias Cunningham) joined the hostel about the same time. Now our batch showed a strong presence and we became a force to reckon with. The hostel was managed by the students and for the students. There was a President , Secretary, Treasurer and a Committee. We took turns to place food on the table. This was an onerous task given over to the “buthmaster”. We took on the burden for a week at a time. Here we learnt to provide a good balanced diet within the confines of the budget. Mealtimes were a minor ordeal for the hapless “buthmaster”. Criticisms, comments and acerbic remarks flowed freely. At times this required a thick skin and broad shoulders. Much of it was done in jest with occasional hurtful comments done in the hope that high standards will be maintained. Despite our youthful exuberance, civility and good manners prevailed. We employed a young male cook who gave us excellent food.

Dinner time was a welcome break from the books. There was an unwritten rule that dinner was served at eight and all were expected to take part. This was a time for some light banter and a time to bond. Many had stories to tell and anecdotes to relate. Medical College was a hotbed of gossip and there was never a dull moment. We had our own court jester to lighten the proceedings. He said: a pharmacist mistakenly put some GUANETHIDINE tablets into a bottle of BENDROFLUMETHIAZIDE. The THIAZIDE was greatly offended and said to GUANETHIDINE “I say you are very ISMELIN”. After dinner an eerie silence descended on Jeewaka which extended far beyond midnight. This was prime study time. The silence was only broken by an occasional whisper, a silly giggle or a noisy snore of a lad overcome by tiredness.

The Buddhist hostel was no mini ashram or a monastery. Non of us were vegetarians. It was a lively house of boisterous medical students with the same desires and passions as anywhere else in the world. No alcohol was allowed within the premises. Jeewaka wasn’t a bohemian playground. Life was serene but never boring. Those of us who cared for a drink visited the bars and taverns at weekends, but discreetly, and learnt to behave ourselves when we got back. So alcohol in the stomach acquired outside the hostel was okay. There was a strict hierarchy based on seniority and a strong sense of mutual respect. We all cared for each other and shared our books and knowledge. The camaraderie and companionship

brought us together. There was a certain enduring calmness that existed at Jeewaka very different from the other medical and university boarding houses we all know.

Whenever we returned from our trips home it was a tradition to bring some sweets biscuits or cakes to share with our friends. There was a guy from Galle called “K” who didn’t like the idea of sharing. He brought eats which he hid in his suitcase and brought king coconuts which he kept under his bed. Once a guy brought a long LP needle and 50 ml syringe and pierced the eye of the king coconuts and syringed out the fluid until all of them were bled dry. Later we heard ‘K’ cursing the vendor who sold him the dud coconuts.

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“Sing Song”

(Photo credit to Jeewaka archives)

Saturday night was music night. Mohanlal Fernando is a fine musician and played his piano accordion with Esiri Karunaratne on the drums and we all joined in singing the favourite songs of CTF, Chitra and Somapala and Sunil Santha etc. The belted out the song that was a hit amongst us “Magey Pale Andura Nasanna”. When my mood takes I still listen to that song to remind me of a very happy time in my life. These ‘sing-song’ sessions were most enjoyable and we often looked forward to Saturday nights to exercise our vocal cords.

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Blackie  in 1965

Blackie the black mongrel was our mascot. He was calm as the morning sunrise and never barked but had some disgusting habits lacking the finesse and the polish of some of the dogs I know. Despite this Blackie was treated like royalty being a pioneer member of the institution and a close associate of its founder members. I think he knew it and took advantage of his prestigious position showing off his filthy habits, much to my utter chagrin.

We had great fun at Jeewaka which was a happy place. We examined patients late into the evening and were returning back to the hostel, cycling along Turret Road. My borrowed bike had a lamp but Cunningham’s cycle didn’t, but he carried a torch (used to test the pupils). A policeman stopped us and asked Cunningham about his cycle lamp. He then showed him his torch. The Policeman said” The lamp must be attached to the cycle”. Cunningham in his cheek said “ The torch is attached to me and I am attached to the cycle. So the torch is attached to the cycle.” Those were the days when a doctor could do no wrong. Cunningham displayed his stethoscope relating his exploits in the emergency room. The Cop listened with bated breath. Cunningham was let off with a gentle caution.

There was an annual hostel trip when we travelled the country in a coach visiting old Jeewakites who treated us most lavishly. Music and fun went with us wherever we went. Jeewaka organised an annual marathon. We all took part pounding the roads of Colpetty. After much practice and panting, on the day Upali Wijeratne won the marathon. There was the Jeewaka dinner and dance when the present hostellers invite the past Jeewakites and their partners. It is a magical evening when we all dress up for the occasion and dance to the music meeting old friends at dinner.

With all the fun and the frolic which was endemic at Jeewaka, poring over books remained our main pastime. The intensity of the friendships and the genuine goodwill between us helped enormously to tide over the stress and strain of constant study. During those months Sanath de Tissera was my constant companion. His calm demeanour and Buddhist philosophy radiated wisdom essential for a peaceful and fulfilling existence. After a full days study we often walked to the sea to watch the waves roll in while the sun went down.

He talked about Abhidhamma and the teachings of the Buddha and I was mesmerized by its relevance to real life. Once after a thoughtful discussion we turned back to return home. I was still deep in thought. The noise of the wind and the crashing waves drowned the roar of the oncoming train. As I was about to step on the rail track Sanath pulled me back with an almighty heave saving me from certain death. This event changed my life forever. Since then I have always considered life as unpredictable and uncertain at any age. Life is as fickle as a dew drop at the tip of a blade of grass swaying with the wind in the crisp morning sun.

Exams came and went and soon it was time to say goodbye to a life I knew and loved. As I reflect on my life now, those 18 months I spent at Jeewaka were some of the best years. Having lived together I became incredibly close to the students. I still remember them, as I saw them last, with their young impish faces and mischievous smiles. It is sad when I think that many of them, I never saw again.

I dedicate these memoirs to my parents, who provided the encouragement and paid the bills and to fellow Jeewakites who by their friendship enriched my life. I am alive today but for the mindfulness of Sanath de Tissera. Sitting on the rocks at the Colpetty beach seeing the sun go down is an image I will never forget.

Jeewaka Buddhist Hostel has survived the turbulence of a multitude of political upheavals, the turmoil of an economic downturn and the anguish of an uncertain future. They had great difficulty finding a permanent home. After Turrett Road they made several moves before finding a home at 124, EW Perera Mawatha Colombo 10. The present Warden Prof Harsha Seneviratne has helped Jeewaka remain afloat despite all its perils. To me personally Jeewaka has lived up to its principles. Long may its ideals and values survive.

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Editorial Note: When I received this post from ND, I spent some time scouring the internet and social media to locate some images relative to Jeewaka. I found 3 shown above. Images were in bad shape. I purchased a software program (Gigapixel AI) which I used to rejuvenate old photographs using artificial intelligence. I am very pleased with the results.

Quiz: Can you identify the 6 Batch’64 comrades in this last photo? State the names and locations in your comments.

Our special thanks to ND for joining Batch’64 blog as a contributing follower. I loved your self portraiture art work as well!

Sam

Life Remembered

Hi Sam
How are you doing? It seems a long time since were at Jeewaka but those memories are still very fresh. Then we met again in Kurunegala. I wonder if you would publish this in your wonderful Blog

Professor of Medicine, Kumaradasa Rajasuriya – Life remembered

Dr. Nihal D Amerasekera

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It is 44 years since the demise of a great clinical teacher and a dedicated and skilful professional.

I have been a critic of the harsh environment of education during my years, 1962-67, at the Faculty of Medicine Colombo. Many would agree Prof Rajasuriya was a tough taskmaster. As medical students we saw just a small snapshot of his life. There was far more to him than what was on display. This spurred me on to learn more about the Professor.

Kumaradasa Rajasuriya was born in 1915. His father was a Station Master and the mother brought up seven children. His parents were determined to provide the children with a good education. He was educated both at Ananda and Nalanda Vidyalaya in Colombo. Tragedy struck at the age of 8 years when he injured his left knee severely and was left with a stiff joint for life. His characteristic gait became his hallmark. That ended his ability to play sports and take part in normal childhood pursuits.

It was his desire to study the Arts in the hope of a job in the Civil Service. His uncle the Principal at Nalanda made him study the sciences for entry into Medical College. At this institution there was the usual baptism of fire while joining the ‘Block’. The Law-Medical match and Body feeds had its own thrills and spills which he endured and perhaps enjoyed. The clinicals began with the strict regime of a 7.15am start. As there were only four students in a group they received closer scrutiny and life was tough. He took an active part in the pranks and the fun that was ever present during those happy years. For his indiscretions he was summoned before the Council but later was warned and discharged. This probably resulted in a cynical antipathy to authority as we saw much later. None of us could have imagined all this from the man whom we feared in Ward 41 at the General Hospital Colombo.

Kumaradasa Rajasuriya left the Medical College in 1940 with a First Class degree and the LMS. His first appointment was at Murunkan when he was confronted with a Cholera epidemic. Then he served as Prison’s doctor before proceeding to England for postgraduate studies. In 1952 he sat the MRCP examination and was successful. He speaks warmly of Dr W.D Ratnavale who coached him for this difficult examination.

After the MRCP he went on to get the DCH as he had a great love for children. Dr. Rajasuriya started work at the prestigious Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. In his own words “I spent some of the happiest days of my life in that institution where hard work was appreciated. I was thrilled when the time came to demonstrate cases during grand rounds. I demonstrated three cases, the diagnosis of which had escaped others”.

On his return to Ceylon he obtained his MD in 1954. He worked as Physician Jaffna 1953-54 and then proceeded to Kurunegala. There were many cases of diarrhoea and dysentery. It was here Dr Rajasuriya used coconut water for IV infusions as saline was in short supply and mostly unavailable. This saved many lives. In 1955 He was appointed as Physician Colombo. That was the turning point in his life. At the young age of 43 he was appointed Co-Professor of Medicine in Colombo. Soon after this Prof P.B Fernando fell ill and Dr Kumaradasa Rajasuriya was appointed Professor. He was both surprised and elated by this turn of events and in his own words “I became a member of the intellectual elite of the country”. He did much to form the Ceylon College of Physicians in 1964 and was elected its President in 1971.

His part in the 1967 malaria epidemic is worthy of mention. There were several cases of the dreaded Falciparum malaria in Matale, Minipe and Elahera. With help of the GA Kandy he established a camp at the Weragantota Rest House supervising the diagnosis and treatment of malaria and establishing there was a serious possibility of the disease spreading country wide. He coordinated troops from his own department to travel to all parts of the country and help in diagnosis and training.

Prof KR showed great kindness towards his patients and did everything possible to make their lives comfortable. He wanted his students to develop that same empathy. He had an uncanny and enviable ability to ask simple questions from patients to help in a diagnosis. He believed strongly that a medical school should not an ivory tower but should carry a full clinical load and serve the medical needs of the community. He worked tirelessly to provide a fine clinical service despite his teaching commitments. His junior staff treated him with great respect. This was partly because of his innate skill but also because his formidable memory. Often he could recall a patient’s problems far better than they did. He ran a happy and enthusiastic department.

The Professor had a sophisticated sense of humour. We were on our two month clinical appointment. The students gathered round the professor as he carried on his afternoon ward round. Only the male students were present when he quipped “where have all the flowers gone” (from the Pete Seeger song of 1956 concerning the horrors of the Vietnam war.) During our lectures on medicine Professor was teaching us the clinical features of Cholera. He said the patients pass a lot of flatus before the diarrhoea “the wind before the rain”.

He had many publications and papers in addition to his writings on the history of medicine in Ceylon from the 5th Century. He produced valuable research on Cirrhosis of the liver and chronic pancreatitis in Ceylon.

As Professor of Medicine his lectures were precise and complete. He was a fine enthusiastic teacher. When I was a medical student many of us after qualifying worked in peripheral hospitals where facilities were pretty basic. Medical officers had to depend more on their clinical sense. Good history taking, a complete clinical examination and the ability to elicit clinical signs was crucial. As a clinical teacher he felt it was his duty to teach all students who came under his tutelage to be able to provide good clinical care. When he felt we did not work hard enough he was tough and often ruthless. The relentless pressure and the sarcastic comments were at times hurtful and on looking back unnecessary. But one cannot fault his vision and determination.

Prof Rajasuriya was the Director of Health Services when the insurrection broke out in 1971. During this period he rallied the medical services to do their best in difficult circumstances. The A&E in Colombo bore the brunt in accepting and caring for the injured. Prof RK spent the nights in the A&E unit in support of the doctors. He was essentially a person who wanted to care for his patients. To be sitting at a desk at Head Office and pander to the whims of Politicians was not to his liking. He returned to clinical work again in 1972 and described his years as Director as being in the wilderness.

Prof. Rajasuriya was a devout Buddhist and had a great love for the history and the culture of the country. He remained a controversial figure with his views on nationalism and religion. Such views spilled over when he was angered in the presence of medical students. The comments were general and to my knowledge never directed to any individual. During my 2 months of the Professorial appointment I was never singled out or admonished. There are many others who were not so fortunate and were left to lick their wounds in great despair. It is said he was fair at examination whatever the race or religion. I think he was fair during the clinical appointment too. What he despised was what he called laziness or being unable to take a good history or elicit physical signs. I am personally unaware of his views and actions outside the precincts of the GHC and the faculty. But within those walls I have no reason whatsoever to believe he was unfair in the way he administered and carried out his duties as the Professor of Medicine. I am certain we will all have a different take on his attitude and behavior.

He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1975. The suddenness of his demise brought great sadness to many. We lost a consummate physician, a fine teacher and a superb clinician. I will always remember him for teaching me the importance of history taking, examination and the correct way to elicit physical signs. These stood me in good stead when I went up for the MRCP examination in London. On receiving my results the person who came to mind immediately was Prof K Rajasuriya. I said a quiet “thank you” to my guru.

He had many interests other than medicine which we would never have imagined. His hobbies were painting, writing poetry, and model trains. He was unmarried.

May he find the Ultimate Bliss of Nirvana.

Medical Relief

SLMA Relief Fund

The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA), a responsible and leading doctors’ association in Sri Lanka, has opened a fund – SLMA RELIEF FUND – to help the health sector overcome the shortage of essential medicines and equipment. The official launch was planned for the 10th of May but had to be cancelled because of what happened on the 9th and the ensuing curfew.  Citizens and expatriate friends have already started donating to the fund.

If my batch mates would like to contribute towards this worthy cause, to help save patients’ lives, please visit the website of the SLMA Relief Fund for more information: https://slma.lk/slma-relief-fund/

Thank you very much.

Anoja

Dear Anoja,

Thank you for that information.
Will do the needful. 
The only practical and immediate thing we can do from abroad.
I am sure the batch of 64 will rise to the occasion.
With best wishes,
CJ
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