Shared by our Guest Writer N. Douglas Amarasekara
My personal memories of Dr N.A.J Niles, Consultant General Surgeon at the National Hospital in Colombo, 1958-73
Dr N.A.J Niles was born in Manipay in 1913. His father was a District Judge. After his early education at Jaffna Central College, he moved to Wesley College (1928-32). There he had an outstanding career winning several prestigious awards. After being successful in the Cambridge Senior examination he proceeded to the Ceylon Medical College.
He came from a staunch Wesleyan Methodist background. His religion meant a lot to him and it made a deep impression on his life. This also shaped the way he approached his medical career. He considered his skills as a God given gift and used it in the service of humanity.
Remarkably diligent, Dr Niles had an illustrious passage through Medical College. He won the Rockwood Gold Medal for Surgery at the final examination. In 1936 he qualified as a doctor aged 23. He proceeded to England in 1940 and was soon successful in the FRCS (Eng) examination. On his return to Ceylon, he served as a surgeon with great distinction working in several hospitals in the ‘out station’. Dr Niles was appointed surgeon to the General Hospital Colombo in 1958.
I first saw Dr Niles when he drove his posh Humber Hawk into the school drive bringing his sons to Wesley College. His elder son, Wesley Niles was in my class in the 6th form.
Dr Niles worked as a general surgeon. Among his contemporaries were Dr Noel Bartholomeusz, Dr L.D.C Austin, Dr Clifford Misso and Dr P.R Anthonis. He was hugely popular and deeply respected by his consultant colleagues in the General Hospital Colombo. His photo hangs proudly in the Consultants’ Lounge at the National Hospital as a thank you for his dedication and service to the hospital and his patients.
Tall, suave, sartorially elegant and articulate, he could have been a matinee idol. Dr Niles’ photo brings him back to life with a flood of memories. I met him in 1964 when I started my clinical work as a medical student. He taught me Surgery until I qualified in 1967. This was a time when the Surgeons and Physicians in hospital benefitted enormously from private practice. Dr Niles was one of the few consultants at the time who never went out of his way to enhance his private income. Hence, he was never party to the competitive bitterness that existed in the realm of private medicine. Not chasing after money made him a minimalist, proceeding to surgery only when all other less invasive treatments have failed. He was a fine dedicated surgeon who gave his all to his patients whether they were fee paying or not. His surgical skills were exemplary. He worked tirelessly and with great empathy for the benefit of his patients. He had a brilliant mind, but his erudition was lightly worn.
Although he might appear tough at first meeting, this was misleading. With his fine ability to teach and educate, Dr Niles took on his duties as a tutor seriously. He trained and educated us in the basics of surgical diagnosis and treatment in a way we could remember. He explained, simplified and clarified. We recorded in our notebooks his insightful nuggets of wisdom. He taught the students in a rather avuncular manner that reflected his personality. I vividly recall his unstoppable flow of conversation. His talks during ward rounds were amusing and educational. In the harsh environment of medical education of the era he showed us tremendous kindness and sympathy. This is not an attempt to deify Dr Niles. Very occasionally his fits of fiery vexations would shatter the serenity of the ward. And in the blink of an eye, it was all over. His kindness always shone through.
I remember working in his ward as a student. He was a natural storyteller with a wonderful talent for mimicry. He mimed the pain of a gastric ulcer by holding his abdomen, squirming and rotating his body. For the colicky pain of kidney stones he writhed and wriggled his torso to one side. These amazing gifts he possessed added colour and lightened the endless burden of hard work in the ward. Dr Niles was a born entertainer. His teaching ward rounds were delightful theatre. They were witty and spiked with surgical humour. He had a multitude of funny stories about his experiences with patients. A student asked Dr Niles if he would operate on a very sick man. He rolled up his eyes into the heavens and said “this patient wouldn’t be fit for a hair-cut”. One of his female patients had a long and difficult gall bladder surgery. He spoke to the woman several days later saying “ Oh Gosh!! It was like going down a deep cavern to reach your gall bladder. I really needed ladder”. She simply whispered her thanks. Once on a ward round a patient told him he passes ‘piti’ or flour like stuff in his urine. The patient in the next bed told him he passes sugar in his urine. Dr Niles told them both, you pass flour and this guy passes sugar why don’t you both join up and start a bakery. These amusing and priceless stories have entered the folklore of the Colombo Medical Faculty. Dr Niles had the unique ability to see the funny side of day-to-day life. There is a vast repertoire of Dr Niles’ anecdotes which are recounted by those who have been with him. We all adored and cherished his eccentricities, and there were many. He was a legend in his own lifetime.
As a student I count myself fortunate to have had Dr Niles as a clinical tutor. He inspired us all by his intellect, competence and courtesy. He provided a tremendous service to his patients. He enlightened and entertained us. His students judged his teaching as superb, while his juniors, assistants and successors attributed to him all the best qualities of a skilful surgeon. He radiated charisma, influence and inspiration. Many will fondly remember his many charming ways, immense kindness as a surgeon and his excellence as a clinical teacher.
Dr Niles retired in 1973 after 35 years of dedication to the Health Service leaving a stream of emotions and many happy memories. He never amassed great wealth and lived a frugal life but was forever happy and content. In retirement he maintained his sense of humour seeing the funny side of life. Dr Niles remained a warm and friendly person as always until the very end. He passed away in 1978 age 64, far too young to leave this wonderful world. May his Soul Rest in Peace.