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Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
(Republished - This was first published in the Sunday Times of 10 January 2010)
Dr. P.R. Anthonis - A personal tribute
I came to know Dr. P.R. Anthonis when I was a medical student in the mid-sixties. Although an extremely busy surgeon, he always found the time to teach us. Later in 1967 I was his intern medical officer for six months. The period of internship was hectic and we were kept extremely busy. He gave a lot of responsibility to the house officers who responded to the hilt. There were many VIPs in the paying wards but Dr. Anthonis gave the same attention to the patients in the non-paying wards as well. During this period it became evident to me that he was an energetic and technically competent surgeon and teacher/tutor who claimed that work “refreshed” him. This was perhaps the secret of his longevity.
Once an attendant came to him and asked him for a few hundred rupees on the grounds that his mother had died. I was bemused when Dr. Anthonis gave him half the money and asked him to keep it. I asked him whether he believed the attendant’s story and his reply was that he did not, but to have said that his mother had died perhaps indicated a dire need of the money and more-over, the mother cannot die twice! Such was his wisdom in mundane matters.
On another occasion I was assisting him in the operating theatre, when a doctor came from the adjoining theatre and whispered something in his ear. He immediately went to the next theatre and returned after about 10 minutes. He did not tell us why he was called and carried on with the surgery. When I went to lunch, I met the surgical registrar who was in the next theatre. He told me that his “boss” (a well known budding surgeon) was performing a cholecystectomy (removal of the gall bladder) and had damaged an artery which resulted in the abdominal cavity rapidly filling with blood.
The young surgeon had panicked when he could not locate the bleeding point in the pool of blood and had called for assistance. Dr. Anthonis had come over, quite calmly sucked out the blood from the abdominal cavity, located the bleeding point in the hepatic artery and sutured it. His humility and greatness were manifest in that he kept it to himself, without embarrassing his junior colleague. “Never kick a fallen dog!!” was one of his mottos. I have watched him single handedly place fledgling surgeons on a sound footing.
The HOPE ship was docked in the Colombo Port during this time, and the American surgeons who came over to assist Dr. Anthonis were astonished by his operative skills. His versatility was testified to by his ability to perform surgery on the gall bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, spleen, kidneys, adrenals, urinary bladder, prostate bowel, thyroid gland etc., with great dexterity.
An overawed American surgeon told me that in their country, surgeons usually specialize only in one organ. Many newly returned surgeons followed his ward rounds and came in to operate on a side table whilst Dr.Anthonis performed major operations on the centre table. We the juniors watched newly qualified surgeons gain their experience thus, and Dr. Anthonis’s unit was never short of clinical material. Furthermore, documenting all the surgical work pictorially and cataloging each and every patient’s details was a unique trait in this brilliant surgeon's professional life.
On Thursday afternoons, a wide variety of short eats was made available outside operating theatre C. Young doctors and medical students not working with him also used to come along to enjoy and savour the spread!
Dr. Anthonis was the patron of the medical students Buddhist Hostel, Jeevaka, for many years. I am personally aware that he donated furniture etc., when the need arose. He has assisted numerous medical students with books, stethoscopes and finances.
His intellectual skills were all embracing. Before he visited a tourist/historic resort, he would read about the place and gain knowledge; during such visits he would educate the fellow tourists including the tourist guide!!
His influence was considerable, not only in the surgical sphere but also in historical scholarship. He was a storehouse of knowledge as to what happened - when, where and why. More recently when a younger colleague was researching to write a book about the history of paediatrics in Sri Lanka, I took her along to meet Dr. Anthonis. After listening to her, he meticulously selected many invaluable articles from ancient documents in his vast collection, which ultimately enriched the book she wrote. We watched in amazement as he remembered exactly where the information was stored and more importantly, from which bookshelf it could be retrieved! He was equipped with this ability of retrieval of data sans computers, at the ripe age of 97 years.
Meticulous cataloging by him, demonstrated that history was intellectually more strenuous than merely a good memory. Dr. Anthonis was a unique person, extremely skilful in his specialty, very knowledgeable about diverse topics, sober in his habits, deeply religious and extremely humble. Undoubtedly he is one of the most notable alumni of the Colombo Medical School. He rivalled all others of his time in distinction and vigour.
He is by far the greatest medical personality that I have come across in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. After my internship, although I specialized in paediatrics, we remained in constant touch and my wife and our offspring also had the privilege of being enriched by his company at many wonderful dinner parties. I participated in his retirement function in 1971, and 37 years later, I was extremely pleased and filled with emotion when my former teacher, Dr. Anthonis attended my retirement function and unveiled my portrait at Lady Ridgeway Hospital. It was unfortunate that he failed to reach his one hundredth year by a mere 35 days, to which he was looking forward to with much enthusiasm.
However, his was a life well lived in the fullest sense. May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana, via the shortest route through Sansara.
Prof. Sanath P. Lamabadusuriya, MBE, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics, University of Colombo.