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Friday, December 18, 2015

From Here to Eternity

By Nihal D. Amerasekera

When I qualified as a doctor in 1967 all I wanted was an easy life.  I wanted to be free of the stresses of examinations , to be far from the madding crowd and closer to nature.  My obvious choice was to be a DMO. After 2 years as an MO/OPD in Kurunegala I applied to become a Medical Officer of the Peripheral Unit in Bingiriya which had fallen vacant.  Bingiriya was a small, serene and peaceful town at the edge of the dry zone.  Chilaw with its bounty of fish. crabs and lobsters was just 10 miles away. The peripheral unit had its own doctors quarters. It was a small quaint hospital with a garden full of mango and jak trees. I waited with bated breath for my official confirmation but when it arrived, I had the shock of my life. I’ve been  transferred to the Central Blood Bank in Colombo with immediate effect.

These movements of doctors often in a four yearly cycle were euphemistically called transfers. In my recollection half a century ago, there were many  thousands of these transfers arranged by the Head Office. The Director was unable to do it all by himself and the work was delegated to a clerk who was quite knowledgeable and had done it for many years before. Some of it was done like shuffling a pack of cards and where you were posted depended on your luck. Occasionally what mattered was whom you knew. It makes me humble to think my entire professional future finally depended on a random selection at the Head Office.

The Central Blood Bank (CBB) was at the GHC site.  It was on the left when you enter the hospital from Kynsey Road. It had a modern façade but within it was an old house. Many warned me this was a dead end job.  I was quite prepared to while away my time and enjoy life in the capital. The CBB was an autocratic setup with Dr Percy Gunawardene as the boss. The doctors and other staff were happy and the Blood Bank was run with precision and efficiency. The doctors went on trips to collect Blood from all corners of Sri Lanka except Jaffna and Trincomalee. I saw the country on government expense.

Being in Colombo had its pleasures. Many of my medical and school friends were still around in town ready  for a good social life. We frequented the bars and eating houses.  Health Department Sports Club was a popular watering hole. After a couple of years I got tired of this hazy, lazy, crazy life. For the first time they planned to hold the MRCP Part I examination in Colombo in 1973. The faculty library was next door to the CBB. I worked hard to pass the examination. This changed my life forever.

It was now the early 1970’s. The country has been through a bloody insurrection in 1971. Our coffers were empty with constant government reminders to tighten our belts. There were import restrictions and occasional food shortages.  It was then the dark clouds of ethnic strife appeared on the horizon.  It was rather ominous but these never bothered me as much as my desire to complete my professional qualifications. I remember the well oiled and endless circular discussions I’ve had with my doctor friends whether to leave or stay.

I left Sri Lanka to complete my MRCP which I did 18 months after arriving in London.  The bright lights and the personal freedom was a great distraction but commonsense prevailed. The rest including my desire to follow a career in radiology is now history. As always, I will continue to call this turn of events that lead me to leave the country, as the awesome force of destiny.

26 comments:

  1. Certainly brings back memories ND. I shall make a great effort not to refer to AFD! I remember the somewhat portly figure of the BBB Dr Percy G. He always wore a white suit and colourful tie and had wavy,greasy hair with a side parting, almost like a toupee resting on his head . He is best known for his gallant action when Dr TDH Perera,Thoracic Surgeon, was involved in a car crash and needed blood urgently and Dr PG came personally to get a sample of blood from one of the famous TDH veins and struggle as he might, he couldn't get into one and had to admit defeat and hand over the task to someone who does it several times a day as opposed to once in several years!

    Jobs in Colombo which may not give the best clinical experience, were sought after because it gave time to study, time to stalk the wards like predators looking for "interesting cases" and time to attend some teaching rounds, for those studying for the Primary exams or sitting for the MD, as was in my case when I came to the Pharmo dept as a Demonstrator. Of course all this happened because my father married my mother due to his AFD which happily conspired with AFD of my mother and of course the AFD of myself!

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    1. I have often wondered how life would have panned out for me if I was appointed to Bingiriya. Of one thing I am certain. I would have been contented wherever I was having fulfilled my ambition to become a DMO.

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  2. Mahen
    Your are right about PG. Sadly he died young. I too remember the TDH Perera accident and its aftermath.
    I came across Vedavanam, Razaque, Bernadette Samaranayake, Asoka Wijeyekoon all from our batch who joined the Blood Transfusion Service during my time. It was a happy time of which I have fond memories. I cannot remember Bernadette's maiden name. She became a Haematologist at Pontefract Hospital UK. It all seems so long ago!!

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    1. I remember Bernadette. She was a Miss De Silva. Single plait, slightly freckled face (just an observation! Not a detractor) and always wore that certain type of skirt those days with all gathered in the middle allowing a vast expanse of pleated frock just below knee level. She had intense eyes and was a serious girl.

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    2. Mahendra you are correct. She was a De Silva.

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  3. By the way and unrelated to the above post, a late news item from a previous post on my Vikara Pissoo video--

    Happy to say that Fuch Orf has withdrawn his proposed action and that the Vikara Video will remain in YouTube to inform and entertain millions. I had a tearful Boris Sposforth-Smythe on the phone just a few miliseconds earlier informing me of this outcome. As they say "All is well that ends well". (with a few exceptions like the pussy in the well).

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  4. ND,thank you for the pleasant memories. The MRCP Part 1 was held for the first time in 1971. It was in the top floor of our faculty. A person from the British Council dressed in a suit opened the package sharp at 2.30 pm (so as to coincide with the release of the same paper in London) There were about 40 of us who sat for the paper. The first person to leave the hall was a candidate attired in a suit.(I have not seen him since then) The second person to leave the hall was myself after about 90 minutes (it was a three hour paper.)Few of us passed including Russell Paul. The next day I recollected the whole paper( 60 MCQs with 5 responses in each ,totaling 300 questions.)The billiards marker made copies of it and made a fortune by selling this valuable document because at that time there was no question bank.
    I used to visit the Health Department Sports Club regularly to play billiards when I was an intern and thereafter. The first time I participated in the annual billiards tournament, I won the title at the first attempt. There after I represented the Sports club in tournaments together with Halim Sheriffdeen, Narendra Wijemanne and A N Other
    Sanath

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  5. Sanath
    You do have a remarkable memory like replaying an old video clip. Thank you.
    ND

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    1. One evening as I dropped in at the Health Dept Sports Club Jaimon was having a farewell drink before leaving for Australia/NZ. It may have been 1972/73. I too joined in until closing time when we said our final goodbye. I never saw him again.

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  6. HDSC was a popular watering hole in the 1960 and 70's. It attracted the great and the good and both saints and sinners. The noise level increased as the night went on. It was mostly good humoured except the occasional outburst from a person who has had one too many. Jaimon was in top form at his farewell until the parting goodbyes. Would you believe it after all that drink we all drove back home. Lord Bacchus , perhaps, looked after us.

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  7. HDSC was never my 'stamping ground' as I was out 'in the sticks' as DMO. I enjoyed my stint as DMO -- some of my best days of my life. Unless one is prepared to 'skin' the natives by way of PP, which was very lucrative there, then it was difficult to 'make ends meet'. To me PP was abhorrent so joined the Blood Bank after 'calling time' as a stop gap. I knew that I will never be the 'Bank Manager' , so quit & sought my future abroad working for a salary to keep body and soul together--- rest is history.

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  8. Lucky AbeyDecember 20, 2015 at 2:14 AM
    That was the time I was in far off Matara. I was probably playing the same game at the Public Services Club. However, I knew that Sanath was representing the Health Dept. Sports Club. But was not aware of the many who left the shores for greener pastures like ND and Jaimon. Bar Keeper was Somapala
    (a fair complexioned pleasant fellow) and there was another elderly guy called Appuhamy who used to make devilled beef for bites. Dr. Hattotuwa was a regular at the bar. So were Noel Samuel (an MLT from MRI who had a limp) who I was later told had played out a large sum of money and scooted out of the country. He was the long standing Treasurer.

    Do you know that I dropped in at the club one day recently for the sake of nostalgia? The place was deserted and run down. The bar was closed!

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  9. Greenland was another favourite for a decent thosai feed and some lager. I wonder if it still exists. I well remember our visits with Lubber and Kandasamypillai (junior batch). We talked politics, religion, life and the future. None of the three are in SL today. Kanda was a quiet guy with only a few words but often had something profound to say. I have lost contact with them both although they a just more than a stones throw away in the UK. Such is life. As our lives diverge with careers and family that closeness we enjoyed can never be replicated despite the brief connections at reunions. For those living in SL the closeness is far greater than for the ones living in "exile"

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    1. I remember as if it were yesterday walking down the slope to Greenlands. I do reflect on those happy days with great warmth. Kanda was a storehouse of stories and while he was relating those Lubber embellished them with stunning one liners. We flitted from topic to topic with consummate ease. Recent gossip was thrown in for good measure. It was good humoured right to the end.

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  10. Greenlands Hotel down Shrubbery Gardens was one of my haunts as well. Do you know that whenever I enjoy bachelorhood (very rare occasions), I make it a point to visit these places which Mangala will never tolerate.

    My favourite at Greenlands was chapati. The bar was adjacent.

    I knew Kandasamypillai when he did his Internship at Colombo South Hospital. He occupied Walter Jayasinghe's quarters with KSP de Silva and SP de Silva. We used to call him "Kanda". I was in and out of their quarters because I was MO/OPD and I was staying walking distance from the hospital (unmarried at that time).

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  11. Kanda was an orthopaedic surgeon in Kent. He keeps to himself. No news from Lubber. I would value an evening with those guys at the HDSC and Greenland to relive the past after so much water has passed through the proverbial bridge.

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  12. I know the CBB has now moved to Narahenpita and wonder what's happened to the old building near the clock tower that housed it for so long. I remember fondly the night duty when we slept in an old room at the back with a mosquito net. It was said that place was haunted but I never saw or heard anything in all those years. The front room gave a panoramic view of the doctors, patients and relatives who passed through those hallowed gates. Gnanasekeram Ward was opposite and the Biochemistry lab at its side. The doctors quarters just next to it was a haven for the many doctors who wanted a bed for the night and I have availed myself of that facility on many occasions remembering only the leaving and not the rest. Those were the days of wine and roses.

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  13. I really enjoyed reading this. I see the work of a Literary Genius in this. You could easily have had such a career. It's never too late!
    Zita

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  14. This is Zita's comment 2.
    I am enjoying reading about what you guys got up to and details about various posts in Sri Lanka. I had no experience at all of working there during those early years as I left SL in 1968. But I came back in '84 and did a two year stint in Galle, where I met Sanath who was Prof Paediatrics and later I did 2 years at the Eye Hospital and 5 years at Sri Jayawardenapura. So no one can blame me of deserting my motherland. But of those who worked mostly abroad, I have no quarrel. Wherever we worked we looked after human beings! That's what we were trained for. So let's say we all did our duty.
    Zita

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    1. Well said Zita. Happy New Year and hope you had a lovely Christmas

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  15. Nihal, It is always fun to read your very well written articles. I also read the comments with great interest. It is very clear to me now that you guys (the ones with the Y chromosome) had much more fun in Medical College and also later on. But, no regrets, that is just the way it was. I am relieved that all of you got home from the HDSC in one piece and lived to tell the tale. Good old Jaimon, he was such a nice guy. Someone mentioned Bernadette de Silva; the last time I saw her she was on duty at the DeSoysa Maternity Home when I delivered my younger daughter. That was 45 years ago! (Some of us were busy doing other things, and not just hanging out at the HDSC) Does anyone know the whereabouts of Bernadette? And Speedy, what the heck is AFD? If it is X rated please send me an email.
    Srianee

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  16. In case, Speedy misses this query - "Awesome Force of Destiny"

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  17. In case, Speedy misses this query - "Awesome Force of Destiny"

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  18. Thanks Lucky. I am now enlightened!

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