Tuesday, October 27, 2015
A Tribute to a Great Teacher - Dr R.S Thanabalasundrum
By Nihal D Amerasekera
On starting Clinical work at the General Hospital Colombo in 1964 I was immensely fortunate to belong to a generation taught by a plethora of superbly dedicated and gifted teachers. Although they lead busy lives with a thriving private practice they never failed to give their all to the students. I am greatly indebted to all of them for their dedication and commitment. In that firmament of shining stars I would consider Dr Thanabalasundrum as the one that shone the brightest.
My first clinical appointment as a medical student in Colombo was with Dr Thanabalasundrum. Then he was at the zenith of his profession and remained as one of the best teachers of clinical medicine in the country. He was a brilliant professional and a consummate physician. He took teaching seriously and introduced a system and structure into history taking. He brought logic into our clinical methods, diagnosis and treatment. When presenting cases nothing incorrect went past his sharp intellect. He always tested and challenged the student’s narrative. The little book of Clinical Methods by Hutchison and Hunter held more reverence than the bible. His pearls of wisdom filled our notebooks.
Dr R S Thanabalasundrum was focused and thorough in everything he did. He made certain we learnt medicine whether we liked it or not. He didn’t mince his words and was a strict disciplinarian. Although stern he had the welfare of the students at heart and respected their dignity. To his patients he showed great kindness and empathy. His bedside manner was immaculate and impressive. Although he enjoyed a lucrative private practice he never neglected his duties to his students and patients in his non fee paying wards.
Dr Rajadurai Selliah Thanabalasundrum was born in Kokuvil in 1922. His father was a doctor. After a stint in the local primary school he entered Royal College Colombo where he had a glittering academic career. He was drawn into the profession of his father and Joined the Colombo Medical College. Dr Thanabalasundrum lived in the Brodie hostel which had a notorious reputation for its pranks even in those distant days. He worked diligently in that environment to obtain first class honours in all examinations achieving the rare feat of distinctions in Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics in the Final MBBS in 1946. After obtaining his MD in 1954 and MRCP (Lond) he returned to become the Visiting Physician in Jaffna. He was appointed Consultant Physician to the General Hospital Colombo in 1956. In that same year he was married to Pamathy Sivagnanasundrum. They had two daughters and a son.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1974. As a physician his interests were wide ranging. His gentle approach to patients and their problems led to his being much in demand as a consultant. It was during these years that he became our family physician and we were at the receiving end of his kindness and first rate clinical care.
Dr R S Thanabalasundrum was an excellent tutor and treated his ward staff and doctors with courtesy and kindness. He made time to train his junior doctors who went on to good consultant posts in various parts of the world. His patients had enormous respect and affection for him. His straightforward manner and integrity made him a reliable and loyal colleague.
After retirement from the GHC he continued with his private practice in Colombo for many years until he became the Professor of Medicine of the North Colombo Medical College in 1985. There he remained until 1995. As Professor he was greatly respected as an exceptional lecturer and good colleague. In recognition of his long years of service to the nation the Government bestowed on him the honour of Deshabandu in 1998.
Despite his stern outward appearance he showed tremendous humanity and warmth to those who came to know him. He could be disconcertingly candid. Dr R S Thanabalasundrum will be long remembered as a brilliant teacher a superb clinician and a kind and generous doctor with good old school values.
In his final illness he was treated by Dr HHR Samarasinghe. The anecdotes suggest he still had the interest in his profession to be aroused by clinical problems of the day. While his talents were great and his professional achievements many, the mark that he has left in the memory of his students, family and friends is his warmth, dedication and generosity of spirit.
All through the political upheavals and the grim era of ethnic tensions his love for the country of his birth sustained him and never wavered. He continued to live at Horton Place Colombo 7 until his death in November 2007. His remains were cremated with Hindu rites at the General Cemetery Kanatte. The likes of him are a rarity and irreplaceable in this selfish and egotistical world.
His name will be etched in the Hall of Fame of Medical greats in Sri Lanka to be remembered for all time.
May he find Eternal Peace.