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Friday, March 6, 2015

The Rage of our Time

By Nihal D. Amerasekera 

When I think of the emotion of anger many events of my life and that of others flash across my mind. The one that sticks in my head in the context of this Blog is an incident while we were doing Prof Rajasuriya’s appointment. Need I remind you it was a time of great stress.  It was a rigid, demanding and grueling two months.  His sarcasm and sardonic comments were at times hurtful.  It may have been our youth that protected us from this onslaught.  When he parked his silver Borgward Isabella in the patch of grass next to his Ward 41, he raised the engine before switching it off and that raised our blood pressure too. We were allocated patients of whom we were to know everything from their ancestry to their ablutions.  

It seemed a serene afternoon when the Prof arrived. He was briefed of the days events by the registrar before the ward round. About mid day a patient had gone into diabetic coma and remained critically ill.  The Prof went to this patient first. A medical student was asked how his patient was.  This took him by surprise not having seen the patient after the morning round when he was fine.  So he blurted out “he is sleeping Sir!”  The Prof went into an incandescent rage. The ferocity of his eyes could have reduced even the boldest to tears.  The student got the ultimate punishment - to repeat the appointment.  The rest of the ward round became a nightmare.  His every word had a razor sharp edge. I wish there was a gauge to record the wear and tear on our coronaries that day. 

Another incident during the Professorial appointment comes to mind. The late ‘Claude ‘ Bernard  had a prize patient with Typhoid fever who had a palpable spleen. It was a difficult spleen to feel but an important one for the exam. Bernard had taken a full history and done his business. Everyday for a whole week  scores of medical students came to palpate this difficult painful spleen and the patient was at the end of his tether.  One sunny morning when Bernard came to feel the spleen the patient went into an apoplectic rage. He said everyone was prodding him and he is sick of this and wanted to get discharged. He briskly walked up to the doctors office where the Prof was with the Registrar. Bernard panicked and nearly wet his pants. He pleaded with the patient to no avail. As a last resort Bernard slipped Rs 5 into the patient’s palm  which seemed to calm him down. This certainly averted an ugly outcome. The end of the Professorial appointment was like finishing a 26 mile Marathon. The relief was palpable. We celebrated with a thosay feed at Saraswathy Lodge and a few drinks. 

The two month professorial appointment had its lighter moments too. Prof Rajasuriya had a tremendous sense of humour some of it directed to his professional colleagues. I had a repertoire of his priceless comments which I knew as a medical student but many have been lost in the mist of time. He once said one doesn’t need a brain to practice Obs and Gynae – just 2 fingers.  When one day the Prof arrived earlier than usual only a few male medical students were there. He quipped “Where have all the flowers gone?”. This was then a protest song against the Vietnam war that was raging at the time. 

Prof Rajasuriya dressed immaculately and his gait was measured as was his speech. He was fearless and forthright and had controversial views about nationalism and religion. But in his capacity as the Professor of Medicine he was fair and unbiased. In those days we accepted the idiosyncrasies of our teachers with good grace, assuming their intentions were honourable.  In the harsh environment of education of that era we had very few rights, only a mass of rules. It was also our salad days of youthful paranoia. Life as a medical student was not a bed of roses and neither was it a bed of nails. I take the cue from the title of the 1996 song by that English Rock Band - Oasis – Don’t look back in anger. 

During the professorial  appointment I learnt the all important clinical signs, how to elicit them  and how to perform those simple blood and urine tests. Prof Rajasuriya’s clinical skills and brilliant mind were an inspiration. His lectures were comprehensive and complete. Above all, the hard work and diligence he taught us will remain with us to the  very end. 

When Professor Rajasuriya passed away in 1975 we lost a dedicated teacher and a fine clinician. I personally would like to thank him for the part he played in my medical education. 

May he find the Ultimate Bliss of Nirvana


  1. Nihal, you have painted an accurate picture of a Prof we loved as well as dreaded.I go along with every word you say. We gained a lot but every day was torture. On the whole I too am grateful. But I could have done without his salty humour and 'Pachaya' references.
    Zita (Perera Subasinghe)

  2. Zita
    Thanks for your comment. Surely, there must be a better way to learn a trade than be insulted and humiliated. But that was the way it was. Thankfully the milieu has changed. Now there is mutual respect. At times one gets the impression the pendulum has swung too far. It is much harder to be a teacher now and not many want to take on that profession.
    Prof OER Abhayaratne never made adverse comments about his colleagues and was a gentleman to the very end.

  3. Hi ND, One must try to be fair and recognise the good points about a teacher and not be too harsh on their weaknesses. I am a great believer in encouraging students and giving them the freedom to think and especially at undergraduate and post graduate level, to treat them like mature adults. I remember Dr Oliver Pieris who emigrated to New Zealand as a good example of this. It still surprises me that some of my colleagues expound the view that they would never have passed the Medicine Finals if not for the fact that they were terrorised by Prof Rajasuriya. As the saying goes, "it takes all kinds!". I am afraid I was one of those persons, I am sure like you too ND, who responded best to the mature approach rather than being treated like undisciplined schoolboys. May be his motives were good but I do wish he adopted a different approach.

  4. Mahen
    Thank you for the comment. What I think of the Prof is summarised in the final two paragraphs of my article. In general, fifty years ago everyone in authority treated the subordinates and the general public like dirt. Even the doctors never explained to the patients about the illness and the prognosis. The relatives were treated as if they never existed. No one can change the past but we must understand the situation and move on. I bear no grudge but retain those memories which are more amusing than annoying.

  5. Absolutely. I bear no grudge and try and be thankful for the positives. Nobody is perfect and we must always bear in mind the context in which behaviour takes place.

  6. ND
    I was late reading this article
    Again a balanced and very elegantly written account by you, of a bully who was Professor of Medicine..
    Professor of Medicine

  7. Sorry about the typo error