Officer and a Gentleman
Dr Lakdasa Dissanayake MS FRCS
An astute cancer surgeon, a strict disciplinarian great sportsman, first parachute diver SLAF & more than anything a wonderful human being. My mentor though I am a physician.
That fateful Thaipongal day, 14th January 1990 this dedicated surgeon who never ever took a public holiday off, on the insistence of his loving sons and family, postponed his cases for next day at Cancer institute Maharagama and accompanied his family and a friend’s family to the sea Beruwala-Bentota area. Cruel fate, of not only all the family and friends and his trainees, tragedy struck and country lost one of its most valuable sons in the sea.
I had the fortune of working with him at the base hospital Nawalapitiya as one of his two post intern house officers other one being Pushpa Yakandawala Dissanayaka.
That six months I learned not only surgery, but also empathy and many things about life. He was practicing surgery of Cancer of gullet Oesophagus a very long surgery, a three stage procedure called Ivor Lewis Oesophagostomy single-handedly. Though initially his success rate was not optimal, with time and experience he mastered the technique and was a saviour of many economically down trodden estate Tamils who were having a large number of these cancer due to their habits of betel chewing.
A man of very strict principles, never did private practice and it’s with his agitation with the ministry of health, extra duty hours’ payment was allowed for consultants too who were not doing private practice.
I remember once he was on his way to his home in Nugegoda on first day after a surgery of a cancer patient and half way at Avissawella he went to a telephone booth and called me to check the progress of the patient. I had to tell him there was a leak (dye leaking into a bottle) immediately he turned back and came straight to hospital to do the repeat surgery. That’s the level of commitment to his patients.
Once there was a very poor woman from Lindula didn’t do well after surgery and she was keen to die at home and in case she died in hospital to take a dead body to Lindula it would cost the family a fortune. So he arranged an ambulance to Lindula and both of us accompanied the poor woman to local hospital (as hospital cannot transfer patient to home) and got the DMO to admit the patient and discharge immediately and on the way back to Nawalapitiya hospital we dropped her at estate line home. That was a show of his humanity at its best.
The last time I contacted him was to get my bond signed as a guarantor for my overseas training, he was in PGIM and he was in a very happy mood as his first appearance as an examiner for a postgraduate exam, he never bothered even to ask me what’s the amount he was signing as a guarantor, that is the level of confidence and trust he had on me.
The number of incidents he helped me out and my family at Jaffna during war times will take so much space to write here. Even before I left the shore to leave for UK for training I got the worst news as a shock on a Thaipongal day that my Guru was no more.
Dear Sir, you will be always in my prayers and heart and Sri Lanka is so unfortunate to have lost you at such a young age under tragic circumstances.
May Your Soul Rest in Peace
Forwarded through Praxy by
Dr. MK Ragunathan
Celebration of life
Dr. S. Naganathar MCGP(SL), JCPTGP (UK)
I had an email from Indra that her husband passed away last evening . He has had a fall and fractured his hip and following this he had been to St George’s hospital where other complications had set in and he had been in a lot of pain.
It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Soma. May he Rest in Peace. Perhaps C J or Dharma will update the blog with further details when available.
You might have already been informed that Soma (Somasegaram) died yesterday. He was ill for some time.
Subject: Re: Re-Somasegaran
Our dear friend, Dr. S. T. S. Somasegaram (Soma) has passed away. Sad. Those who want to express sympathies may do so to the following:
Wife, Indira- Indira.firstname.lastname@example.org
Daughter, Subha- +447513880873
Brother, Dhanabala +94 777631787
Please inform other batchmates.
May your journey be in peace, dear friend!
By Nihal D Amarasekara
Revisted after 20 years
The year was 1962. Those were happy peaceful days in my youth. Political turmoil and economic perils were just appearing in the horizon. Personally, life was full of hard study. During the long University vacation I decided to travel home armed with some reading material. I can still recall the large black canopy of the Fort Railway Station and the smell of steam and burning coal. There was soot everywhere. The trains hissed and puffed and screeched incessantly. The 3 hour journey was uneventful but for a talkative young Englishman seated in front who began a long conversation. He indulged lavishly in the vadeys and pineapples sold by the vendors at the Railway Stations along the way. The sight of the stilt-fishermen, with their unique style of fishing from a perch on a sturdy pole 20-50 meters out to sea remain still in my memory.
In 1962 my father was working for the Local Government in Weligama. My parents then lived on the outskirts of the town some distance away from the sea on the Akuressa Road. On either side were paddy fields, banana plantations and coconut trees. Across in the distance was the backdrop of purple mountains. Ours was a new house built on a hillside surrounded by tall jak, breadfruit and mango trees. It was an idyllic setting with a gravel path leading up to the house. At the edge of the property was a stream full of fish. At night the frogs made an awful racket. In the morning the dawn chorus was deafening. During the day I walked in the garden and sat beneath the trees. Just a short walk downstream and I could see the village damsels frolicking and bathing in a muddy pool.
In the warm afternoons I went out for a walk across the fields or through the forest. There were several hills, beautiful valleys and trickling streams. Mealtimes there were the best in my memory. Every meal was a feast of mouth watering sea food with a pot of local curd and honey. The short walk to town was full of greetings from the friendly locals. A retired Apothecary lived in a large mansion nearby. He was a quiet kindly man with a multitude of professional anecdotes. In the evenings we went to the old Rest House by the sea. It was beautifully located at the edge of the Weligama bay . The tall cylindrical columns of its long verandah and its architecture gave it a colonial feel. On many occasions I had sat on the rocks watching the waves roll in. It was very pretty at sunset to see the boats go out to sea and the shimmering lights appear across the bay in the far distance. Heaven and earth seem very near to each other.
Off the beach is an extraordinary villa occupying a 2 acre island in Weligama Bay. It was built in the 1920s by the traveller and gardener Count de Mauny. The island was a famous destination for many notables from different nations, including the novelist Paul Bowles. Its spectacular tropical gardens, and octagonal-shaped house is breathtakingly beautiful. Its early colonial furnishings, large circular verandahs make you step back into the 1930’s and is a travellers dream. Music from Noel Cowards “A Room with a view” wafts in the background giving it an “olde world” feel. The Count finally chose to live his eternal dream of peace and tranquillity close to nature ending his days in this paradise island. There was a busy main street of small shops and a fish market. The Railway Station was small and had a quaint grey picket fence typical of the old CGR. I still remember its Seth Thomas pendulum clock in the Station Masters Office. There was just the one doctor working in Private Practice – Dr Nugara, a kindly gentleman of immense grace and charm. He later left to settle in Australia. Sometimes we visited relatives in Kitulampitiya Galle and occasionally went to Matara to see the sights. After my vacation I said goodbye to my idyllic home to return to Colombo and a busy schedule of hard work.
I left Sri Lanka in 1974 to ‘make my fortune’ abroad. More exams and hard work filled my days and nights. Carving up a career took its time and toll. Years whizzed past and it wasn’t until 20 years later I returned to Weligama, the town that has haunted me since those days of my youth.
I made the journey by car to save time. This was way before the Expressway from Colombo to Hambantota was planned. The roads were narrow and busy and the vehicles had increased several fold. The result was mayhem with noise and pollution. Despite the busy traffic people, cattle and dogs cross the road in gay abandon. Weligama was unrecognisable. The popular landmarks had disappeared or covered and hidden behind newer and taller buildings. I found our former home with the greatest difficulty. The many tall trees that surrounded the house had gone perhaps ending up as furniture in a plush Colombo Hotel. The lovely gravel path to the house had become a muddy track left behind by lorries and bull dozers. The gushing waters of the stream was now a trickle without any life. Perhaps a casualty of intensive farming and the use of pesticides. Worse was yet to come. An old man seated on the steps of the house looked bemused but greeted us warmly. The property has been brought by developers and the house was allowed to decay. The front door creaked as it opened. My heart sank to see the long strands of cobwebs stretch from wall to wall. Wooden windows had perished and fallen away and the house was a haven for cockroaches and mice. In places the roof had caved in. The plaster had come off the rain soaked walls. Doom and desolation filled the air. As I moved from room to room I felt uneasy and claustrophobic remembering the life and the laughter and the happy times we have spent there. I spoke little and left the house heart broken to see my home in ruin and my memories shattered.
Many of the neighbours had died and their children moved away. The main street was packed with people and full of life. There were many tourists bartering and moving in and out of the numerous shops. The astrologers and palmists made a quick trade. The colourful billboards and the buzz of the place absorbed my attention for a while. Rest of the town looked prosperous too. Many of the houses had Televisions, Radios and VCR’s. They were well maintained with lovely gardens and cars in the porch. The people certainly looked more affluent and healthy. With industrialisation we are losing touch with mother earth and the rich harvest it brings. The tourists bring us the valuable dollars to keep our country afloat. They also litter the countryside with the products of their own artificial lives. There have been new additions to the Rest House which was not in keeping with its colonial past. Snorkelling and speed boating had stopped for the day. In the evening I sat on a rock by the Rest House watching the sea and the waves roll in, just as I had done all those years ago. I was wrapped in my own thoughts thinking of my parents and their love. There were Coca Cola cans and polythene bags rolling in the breeze on the baked golden sand. I left Weligama with mixed feelings. Sad that my past has been desecrated but happy to see prosperity has reached that beautiful town of my dreams. After all I cannot allow the dreams of my youth get in the way of progress.
In writing these notes I have tried to give my moods and thoughts as it occurred. To me the last 60 years have been one rich gift amidst some misfortune. It is politics, politicians and the people that would decide what this Century would bring for Weligama.
Many yesterdays of my youth lie buried in this beautiful country of my birth.
OER- A Tribute
Professor O.E.R Abhayaratne – A Tribute
By Dr Nihal D Amarasekara
Prof. Osmund Edwin Randolph Abhayaratne had his early education at Royal College Colombo. After an outstanding career at the Ceylon Medical College he received the diploma of Licentiate of Medicine and Surgery. He began his first job in the Health Service in 1933. After holding several key posts in Public Health and Preventive Medicine he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh for postgraduate training
He later obtained the Master’s Degree in Public Health at Harvard University with First Class Honours. In his long and illustrious career, he won many prestigious National and International awards. In Sri Lanka he held the position of President of several Learned Societies and Associations including the Sri Lanka Medical Association. He was called upon to act for the Vice Chancellor on numerous occasions for Sir Ivor Jennings and for Sir Nicholas Attygalla. The Prof made a significant personal contribution to his commitment to education by being an active member of the Governing Boards of several prominent schools in Colombo and Kandy.
The phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’ is often attributed to the Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, circa 1500. Its wisdom wasn’t acknowledged until we were well into the 20th century. In 1949, Dr O.E.R Abhayaratne was appointed the first Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Ceylon. Being a man of outstanding ability and intellect, they couldn’t have chosen better. He was at the forefront of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at a momentous time when we were developing and expanding our Health Service. With his devotion to Preventive Medicine, he kept his speciality in the spotlight publishing scientific papers and review articles. He was hugely influential in the shaping and development of the Public Health Services in Ceylon. He became the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1953 and remained so until his retirement in 1967. The Prof has been notably responsible for the establishment and recognition of the second Medical School in Peradeniya. Away from the bright lights of academia, he was the Vice President of the Sinhalese Sports Club.
The Faculty of Medicine had its fill of eccentric, colourful and prickly characters. There were a plethora of high-profile academics with huge egos. The political milieu of the institution was a veritable minefield. By his dignified personality, charm and good humour Prof Abhayaratne helped to create stability and a convivial atmosphere in the organisation. He was the voice of reason and highly regarded and considered as an approachable colleague. His opinion was much valued. His authoritative yet gentle manner instilled confidence and hope. Many anecdotes abound of his helpful kindness and generosity to young lecturers finding their feet in the faculty. The genial Prof was a tremendously wise and perceptive colleague, able to identify deficiencies and deal with them appropriately.
My first encounter with Prof Abhayaratne was not a happy one. It was at a viva voce examination, prior to entry into the faculty of medicine. This was held at the austere Senate House of the University on Reid Avenue. Half a dozen wizened old men with staring eyes were seated round a shiny table. They fired volleys of questions that unnerved me. I felt like a gazelle cornered by huntsmen. Then fate smiled on me. The Prof realised my discomfiture. He changed the ferocity of my ordeal with a friendly smile and questions about philately and the history of postage stamps. I have remembered his kindness to this day that ended well in a lifelong career in medicine!!
Many students from my era will remember fondly the great man arriving every morning in his chauffeur-driven black Mercedes and getting off at the Kynsey Road entrance to the faculty. He was no stranger to the finer things in life. In a good mood, we often saw him walking the corridors of power whistling a happy tune. It was a morning ritual for Prof O.E.R Abhayaratne and the Medical Officer Dr E.H.C Alles to arrive at the canteen for a tea and a fag. Dressed in his dapper beige suit there was an air of sophistication although it had lost its creases aeons ago. They enjoyed a joke and a smoke. I do not know if it was through fear or respect, we just avoided eye contact with them.
The Dean, with his silver hair and large frame was naturally imposing. He filled any room he entered bringing authority and gravitas to his position as the Dean of the faculty. The Prof. had a distinctive gruff and husky voice. He occasionally barked commands that would have frightened the boldest. But then again with his kind avuncular manner he acquired a cult status in the institution that endeared him to the students. They feared and respected him in equal measure. Beneath that intimidating and fearsome exterior was a kind and considerate man. He led by the force of his personality. During those glorious years of the 1960’s his character and easy-going style were imprinted on the life and workings of that great institution.
Teaching was his life and he gave his all to his students. Professor Abhayaratne was an outstanding teacher and an altruistic mentor with a passionate interest in medical education. The Prof had a unique talent to teach. His Public Health lectures were light entertainment in memorable English prose laced with rhyming poetry. Malarial mosquitoes bred in tins and cans and pots and pans. The corrugated tin roofs were hot during hot weather, cold during cold weather and noisy during rainy weather. His cyclostyled notes (including all his jokes) were available for Rs.5.00 courtesy of the ‘Marker’ in the Men’s Common Room. His superb lectures from sewage disposal to water treatment and squatting plates to the control of communicable diseases were delivered with such elegance they entered our memories and stayed there.
The Professor loved the century-old heritage and the unbroken traditions of the Ceylon Medical College, with all its imperfections!! He wanted students to enjoy their undergraduate years and took great delight in giving his unstinting support to a multitude of events. All the student events of the Faculty were organised by the Medical Students’ Union (MSU). As I heard from a former president of the MSU the Prof’s moral and financial support for the Union was legendary. The MSU organised several evening parties in the Men’s Common Room. This broke the monotony of the hard grind of medical education. There were more drinks than food. The music was provided by our own talented musicians. We sang and danced and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Occasionally on those evening we often saw the lone figure of the Prof standing by the canteen door nearest to the lobby, perhaps after a late evening meeting. He had that familiar stance as he stood at ease with both hands on his hips and his coat open widely. He was hearing the limericks and the rugby songs he had heard many times before. It was like a father seeing his children at play. We saw his smile of approval as he departed. Held at the University at Reid Avenue the Annual Block Concert took pride of place. The Prof was given a seat in the front row, with the great and the good. His welcome presence at the concert never subdued the effusive spirit of the artistes nor their performances. He found it equally hard to maintain a straight face as wave upon wave of youthful antics with sexual overtones hit the deck. It must be said some of the provocative dancing and the racy dialogue would have made a sailor blush!!
As medical students in the 1960’s we lived in an interesting and exciting bohemian whirl.
Prof. Abhayaratne was affectionately known as ‘Pachaya’. It is a term of endearment in Sinhala for a person who is known for being economical with the truth. Perhaps he earned this fanciful sobriquet. This was aptly demonstrated during the cross-examination and interrogations we had with the Prof in the aftermath of the chaotic Law-Medical match. He announced that every photograph taken will be closely scrutinised with a photo-electron-microscope to identify every offender. We feared the worst. It was much later we got to know that no such instrument ever existed.
Above all he was a committed family man. Without his ever-supportive wife, May, he would not have been able to contribute so much time to healthcare and to academic life. He was the first to recognise this. They had two daughters and a son. The youngest, Rohini, was in my year in medical school. Despite her privileged position she had no airs and graces and remained one of us.
Prof Abhayaratne was the Dean of the Faculty at a time of tremendous political change and anxious uncertainty. He steered the ship into safety through stormy seas and retired in 1967. Although he richly deserved a long retirement, he passed away suddenly in 1969 of a heart attack. The Professor will be remembered for his personal qualities of kindness, integrity, warmth and humanity. Now I realise the sheer scale of his vision and his professionalism. Many of us have been greatly enriched by having known him and being his students. Our thanks go to one of the greats of our time and one of the finest to walk the corridors of the faculty. He truly was a credit to our profession. He left the world a better place and left the faculty of medicine up there with the finest institutions in the world. We will forever keep him in grateful memory.
He was sustained by an unflinching Christian faith that was central to his life. A regular church-goer, the Prof was the Warden of St Michael’s Church Polwatte for 7 years.
May his dear Soul Rest in Peace.
My memories of ,
Colombo Medical Faculty, 60 years ago
It is so wonderful to return to the Faculty of Medicine even in our dreams. The quiet Kynsey road, the familiar façade of the grey administrative building and the sentinel Clocktower stands unchanged. I am simply mesmerised by the elegant sweep of those majestic buildings. In that dreamy state it is so easy to be enchanted by the constant whirr of the Vespas in the dusty parking bay behind the Milk Booth and be overwhelmed by the smell of smoke that fills the air. In our mind’s eye the faculty will always remain as we left it all those years ago.
Entry into the Faculty was the culmination of years of toil and sacrifice. There was such a great sense of myopic optimism, we lost ourselves in the adulation. We dreamed it was our passport to fame and fortune. The idyll soon faded as the harsher truths of real life intruded. Life being more like a game of snakes and ladders, always has ways to end that utopian vision and bring us back to reality!!
The Faculty was our Temple of Wisdom and also our gilded cage. There was an air of confidence and a touch of vanity which came from being a medical student. Life then was a dream. I developed a sinister arrogance and an assured sense of entitlement. I dreamed of living happily ever after. It was not long before part of that charm and fantasy began to wear thin.
The common room was the social hub of the Faculty. It was housed in the drab grey administrative building of the Faculty of Medicine in the shadow the Koch memorial clock tower. The tall tower with its colonial elegance was built in 1881 in memory of Dr E L Koch, the 2nd Principal of the Colombo Medical School. The Milk Booth with its red and white stripes gave a bit of colour and provided the medical students with sustenance and cigarettes. Smoke and noise filled the ‘dust bowl’ behind the booth which was the parking space for a multitude of cycles, scooters and motor bikes that entered and left the area with monotonous regularity.
My first encounter with the common room wasn’t a pleasant one. It was the baptism of fire in the infamous rag week. I needn’t elaborate on the psychological vandalism of this archaic practice, a remnant of British rule given a psychopathic oriental twist. That is how I see it now from the sanitised world I live in. But I must confess I didn’t see it that way at the time and considered this as yet another hurdle on the way to fame and fortune.
The common room merged into the canteen and the two were inseparable. Many preferred to take their tea-punts to the common room. The cigarette was a fashion accessory and smoking was rampant in those days. The canteen and common room were full of smoke all day long. The common room had a radiogram with numerous records ranging from classical to jazz and popular music. The table tennis was keenly contested. Perched on his ancient wooden chair ‘Marker’ controlled the billiards corner. He had his “potha” the exercise book which gave us the order of play for billiards. For some students billiards was not only a game but a way of life. Some veterans played their entire game with a cigarette precariously perched on their lips, just like a scene from a 1930’s Hollywood movie. There were several Carrom boards ‘greased’ with talcum powder and in constant use. It amazes me still how the Bridge players found time for their hobby as the games went on forever. There were guys poring over the chess board often seen in deep thought ruminating on the last move and fretting over the next.
In those days feminism was a profanity. Although called a common room it was common only to men. Women were not officially barred but whenever they arrived there were wolf whistles and cat-calls reminding them plainly and unequivocally it was a men only area. I have witnessed this spectacle with many girls running away in extreme embarrassment. Girls were often seen in the canteen with their friends and partners.
The common room was a very special place for us medical students. It was our own retreat and shelter from the storms of faculty life. Our teachers never used the common room and we were left to our own devices. We gathered there to chat and socialise. Racy jokes and saucy humour filled the air. Those friendships made and firmed within those walls have a special closeness that have lasted a lifetime. The common room was also a cauldron of emotions and a place of refuge. Those who have had a tough time at appointments or being repeated sat down alone in a quiet corner or stood with friends to be comforted. Posting of the examination results on the notice board and our desperate search for our names, is a ritual I can never forget. I have seen the despair in the faces of those who had failed. They were consoled by friends. The sheer relief and joy of those who passed often spilled out of the common room to rendezvous at the Lion House or Saraswathy Lodge. Those who failed too quietly drifted in late to drown their sorrows. The common room must retain many memories of the agony and the ecstasy of life in the Faculty.
The days in the ‘Block’ were tough. Detailed study of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry filled our days and nights. We were weighed down by signatures and revisals that generated a toxic atmosphere. But there were the Colours Nights and Block Nights to imbibe the spirit of the swinging sixties and liven up our lives. Those 2 years just flashed by.
Then we embarked on our journey from the dissection rooms to the ward classes and clinical appointments across Kynsey Road. My abiding memory of those years are the long walks along those airy hospital corridors in search of patients and knowledge. We strolled like a ‘peacocks’, swinging those knee hammers and proudly wearing the stethoscopes around our necks. Meanwhile in the 3rd and 4th year we had a profusion of subjects to comprehend. I still convulse thinking of the sheer volume of facts we had to commit to memory.
The Medical Students Union (MSU) wielded great power and prestige. The distinction of being its President was a special honour. The selection was through a democratic election. There was extensive canvassing and the candidates reached out to every medical student with promises and pledges. After the election the MSU hosted an evening party in the common room. It was a lavish bash and the booze flowed freely. It began with speeches by the President of the MSU giving assurances and promises to keep those pledges and make our lives better. The vows and commitments were soon forgotten just like in politics worldwide. One of my enduring memory of this great event is Deva Iriyagolla singing that Mohideen Beig favourite “Tikiri menike ambula genalla” with such sensitivity and feeling. It saddens me to think he died so young while being the DMO at Padaviya in the North Central Province. My meagre contribution was to dance on the bridge table much to the annoyance of the bridge players. Some kind soul took me home to sober up. How I coped going back to my grandparents in Nugegoda that night I will never know. Drinking molasses in such large quantities must have been like placing a lighted stick of dynamite in the liver. Those parties were indeed nights to remember and remain deeply carved in my memory of the happy and carefree time in the Faculty.
We were immensely fortunate to belong to a generation taught by a plethora of dedicated and gifted teachers. Like us many called it the Golden Era of Medical Education. Under their influence and tutelage life was not always a bed of roses. In the ward classes and teaching appointments, there were some exchanges too painful to recall. Although a tad egocentric, they inspired us. They gave of their best to the students. We remember with affection and gratitude the dedication and commitment of our clinical teachers, professors and lecturers.
Then like a never-ending storm came the Finals. Seeing the name on the notice board was an iconic moment to savour. We congregated in the common room, the lobby and the canteen to say our goodbyes. I recall the warmth of feeling that day and the sadness that followed as we left the premises. For some it was my last goodbye as I never saw many of them again. Success was also our liberation and the passport to freedom. From the glowing embers of those undergrad years a new era was born.
Universities are places of endemic change. Every year new students join and those who have left go farther on life’s journey. As all good things must come to an end so did our sojourn in medical school. Those five grueling years brought us closer together. Perils and pitfalls and the blissful euphoria of those years will long be remembered.
“Go West young man” was the mantra that appealed to many. The political turmoil and the perilous economy of our motherland did not give us much faith or hope. One of the greatest triumphs in life is to pursue one’s dreams. Many dispersed far and wide in search of work and opportunity. Those who left the country entered the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest. Amidst the fierce competition for the plum jobs, there were the many unwanted prejudices to contend with. The many who remained in Sri Lanka reached the top of their careers in the fullness of time. I acknowledge the patriotism, loyalty and resilience of those who remained in the motherland to serve the country. They lived through some difficult times. The émigrés too played their role professionally to serve society and the communities wherever they lived and worked. Those who lived abroad made donations to a multitude of Sri Lankan charities. They also provided financial support to Medical institutions and Medical education back home.
I hope very much this account will take you back to those times in our youth and help you recall people and events. As we reminisce we are made aware of the fragility of life and the many who have now departed this world. Now the faculty is a ghostly relic of former times. After the passage of half a century the lively and vibrant common room with its unique ambience can only exist in our memories.
Life at “Jeewaka”
My Life at Jeewaka
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.
(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.
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.
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!
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
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.