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Friday, May 8, 2015

The awesome force of destiny

By Nihal D. Amerasekera

I was not born with a burning desire to save the world from disease. All I wanted in life was a stable job and a stress free existence. I never had a driving ambition to be rich or famous. The desire to help came to me seeing the suffering at the General Hospital, Colombo. All through medical school, it was my wish to remain in Sri Lanka for the rest of my life. Patriotism never entered the equation, but my being an only child did.  

All I knew from school and medical school was examinations. What I wanted from the rest of my existence was the complete opposite. We choose our careers when we were teenagers, knowing nothing about what lies ahead. Five years of grueling study and examinations robbed me of my youth.  Its intensity and harshness was never to my liking.  There are better ways to learn a trade.  Having said that, I respect my teachers enormously. In the Faculty, the teaching was of the highest calibre. In the wards, the Visiting Physicians and Surgeons taught us their craft much beyond the call of duty. I consider myself fortunate to have been a student during those golden years. Despite the hard grind, I have happy memories as a medical student, mostly of friends and friendships. After the “finals”, what I wanted was a life without examinations.  I thought that was not too much to ask, but I was proved wrong.  

The internship came and went as swiftly as a hurricane.  Then I got a job as MO/OPD Kurunegala. This was in preparation for a life as a DMO in some remote corner of Sri Lanka.  During those years, I developed a great love for the simple people of the Vanni. After a couple of years in the job, I was ready to move on. I applied for a small peripheral hospital near Chilaw to begin life as a real doctor. I have vivid memories of a visit to that hospital in preparation for my move. The DMO post was vacant. I met the apothecary who managed the hospital. He was young and enthusiastic and I felt we could work together and have a happy partnership in providing a service to the community. The rejection of my application came as a surprise.  I was new to the machinations, maneuvers and conspiracies of the decision makers in Colombo.  I learnt early in life we cannot always get what we want.  

The Department of Health in their wisdom, gave me a post as MO/Central Blood Bank, Colombo. It was not a job for life but just a stepping stone. I made the best of what was on offer. There was plenty of free time and lots of travel.  Like a vampire, I crisscrossed the country at government expense, reaching every corner of Sri Lanka collecting blood. In Colombo, I kept in touch with  many of my friends from school and Medical school. I was happy in my job with fine colleagues at work. The Health Department Sports Club in Castle Street was a popular watering hole for doctors. We gathered in the evenings and shared the amber nectar putting the world to right. It was tremendous fun on which I look back with much fondness.  

The good life came to an abrupt end when in 1972 I read the Medical College Notice Board . The MRCP part 1 was to be held for the first time in the following year. My dream of being a DMO had ended in despair a couple of years previously.  If I were to remain in the Blood Bank, I had to qualify further or continue cross matching and collect blood for the rest of my life. The latter was not an inviting prospect. After much thought, I went against the grain and decided to sit for the examination. I worked hard like never before. Studying now had a purpose and I could do it in my own time. Medical College library was close at hand.  I never felt that passing the exam was a matter of life and death. At the same time, I was relaxed about it. To my great surprise, I passed. It was then that I decided to go to the UK. 

After the MRCP, I continued to work in the UK. It was my desire to see more of Europe and also earn some money to buy a car and other household goods. Such “luxuries” you may recall, were not available back home. My wish to return was delayed further when I met my future wife. Sri Lanka was then at war and the conflict was rapidly escalating. We then decided to bide our time and continue to work in the UK in the hope the climate would change. The longer one stays in a country, more difficult it is to uproot oneself. By then, I had decided to change course and start my training in Radiology which meant more study and many more exams. The time passed relentlessly. After completing my Radiology training, I returned to Sri Lanka and spoke with an eminent Radiologist in Colombo with a view to finding a job. He is a person I respect  enormously. He gave me many good reasons why I should remain in the UK. We discussed wide ranging issues from seniority in the Health Service to the political climate. By then, the war had made life in Sri Lanka more difficult and at times dangerous. There went my desire to return home and be close to my parents. 

It was indeed a pleasure to work in the UK. While training in Radiology, I had the great privilege of working at Kings College Hospital and the University College Hospital in London.  Learning and studying in England is a great pleasure in stark contrast to what I had back as a medical student in SL. Above all, I was treated with respect. The National Health Service gave me their top job despite being a foreigner. This is much more than what I could have achieved back home.  I worked hard to maintain it.  To remain and work in the UK is a decision I do not regret. I do have regrets about not being with my parents in their hour of need.  

I have missed my family in Sri Lanka enormously and have paid a heavy price for my desire to live and work abroad. I wasn’t present for the births, weddings and deaths of those most dear to me. I am now a stranger to the new generation born during my absence. I feel a foreigner in the country of my birth as Sri Lanka has moved forward in leaps and bounds, despite the destructive forces of a long ethnic conflict. Although I live happily in England, I have left my heart in that beautiful island of my birth and the land of my fore-fathers. 

To stay or leave Sri Lanka is a decision we make when we are young with our hormones raging. Then marriage, bringing up a family and developing a career is uppermost in our minds. There are many other factors that influenced my decision which are of a very personal nature. I had gone from a person who wanted to spend my entire life in Sri Lanka to a permanent exile in a foreign land. I never thought this transformation was ever possible. The way it all happened to me, is a minor miracle. I now call it the awesome force of destiny.


  1. From the Greek writer Aeschylus circa 500 B.C: " But I must bear my destiny as best I can, knowing well that there is no resisting the strength of necessity."
    I only wish I wrote that myself - ND

  2. A post of cathartic honesty. I personally do not believe in "destiny" as how we "float" and are tossed about while we make our way in the river of life need not be thought of as destiny which implies pre-determination, although it is the right of a person to do so. When the floating boat reaches a bifurcation (or trfurcation or even more!),chance could make it go either way and the need for looking for a "purpose" is understandable as that is our Nature. We float in different directions and pass many a place, in my view quite randomly, just like the mutations in genes and when we move along, further moves are determined by the adaptation we make, which in turn are conditioned by environmental influences including the human contacts we make. It is easy to look back on our journey and introduce a sense of determinism and destiny or purpose, but it is just as possible that this "twig" was tossed about in the ocean of life in an entirely random manner. Opponents of such a view will introduce concepts such as "karma", "God" etc and so be it if it helps them to make sense of this World and their existence,in their own minds.

  3. Mahen
    Thank you for the well thought out comment. It is always good to be rational and logical in one’s beliefs as you have done. From the beginning of time there has been a belief of a supreme force and such ideas haven’t gone away despite the passage of time. Destiny is a term akin to fate or karma and has been in existence at least for 2500 years since Buddhism began. There are many things we do not quite understand about life and the purpose of life. My belief in destiny is more complex as I am an agnostic and has been for the past four decades. The belief is not aligned to any religion. I do not have the logic or proof to justify my belief but it is just a “gut” feeling which I am quite prepared to consider as a possible explanation to many of the events in my life. I appreciate very much your generosity in accepting there are people like me in this world , even after a life time in science, continue to have such “strange” beliefs.
    I would welcome more comments from the many who read this Blog

  4. Thanks ND. We are now getting into "heavy stuff"! As we grow older and hopefully wiser (before AD sets in!), we become more tolerant and realise our own limitations. We begin to ask question such as:-
    (a) Do we only believe and accept only what is scientifically verifiable?
    (b) Are we helped/ hindered by our beliefs which may not satisfy rigorous scientific criteria?
    (c) Do we need “props” in life, especially when we have problems which don’t appear to have straightforward solutions?
    (d) How do we reason and interpret our environment?
    (e) Is Faith the same as “blind” acceptance with the caveat that it is not “blind” to the person who accepts the faith?
    My own philosophy in life is very much based on Humanistic principles. To quote the British Humanist Association. Humanists
    1) Think of themselves about what is right and wrong based on reason and respect for others.
    2) Find meaning, beauty and joy in the one life we have, without the need for an afterlife.
    3) Believe people can use empathy and compassion to make the world a better place for everyone.

  5. Mahen

    Thanks for the info about the British Humanists. I will take it up and have a look at what they have to offer. My view on life is in a state of flux. Presently I believe we live and die and that's the end of it. I remember taking a straw poll while on tour with many of my age. They all said the same except a Vicar. So make the best while you are here and able.

  6. Graffiti for some light relief:
    1. Reincarnation is making a comeback.
    -- over my dead body.
    2. Life is a sexually transmitted disease.
    3. "The first three minutes of life are the most dangerous." (notice in hospital)
    --- The last three minutes can be pretty dodgy too.

  7. “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end,
    by forces over which we have no control.
    It is determined for the insect, as well as for the star.
    Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust,
    we all dance to a mysterious tune,
    intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”
    ~ Albert Einstein

  8. Somethings to read and ponder:
    Kindly sent to me by Rohini Anandaraja

    Politics like religion and philosophy we all have our own but it is great to listen and read about what others have to say.