Friday, April 13, 2018
THE SPEEDY VIRTUAL INTERVIEW SERIES- EPISODE 6. April 2018
Rajan Ratnesar - Obstetrican & Gynaecologist
It is my great pleasure to record this virtual interview with my very good friend Rajan “Patas” Ratnesar and I thank him for agreeing to become the 6th in my series in the ColomboMedgrads1962 blog which as we all know, is the brainchild of Lucky Abeyagunawardene.
Speedy: Good morning Rajan. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed.
Rajan: Good morning Speedy, I know you best as Speedy and shall call you as such during this interview if you don’t mind.
Speedy: Don’t mind at all and I shall call you Rajan as I know you prefer that to Patas, although you have no hang-ups being called "Patas" by many. As for me, you always called me Speedy and my other names such as Mahen, Mahendra or Gonsal wouldn’t really sound right.
Rajan: Thanks Speedy.
Speedy: All agreed and without any further ado, tell us how you got the name "Patas".
Rajan: I actually inherited this name from my dear brother Kulan. The story goes that when St. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia was in St Paul’s Milagiriya, during and shortly after the war, he was punished for some offence (he was quite a mischievous guy, unlike me!!) and was asked to stand up on the bench, when a car tyre burst and he clapped his hands and said “Patas”. Ever since then he was called "Patas" by his classmates at STC and, in fact, the few of his classmates still alive 60 plus years later, still call him the same. Some of my classmates in later years were siblings of my brother's classmates and they started calling me "Patas" and this stuck with me years at STC and beyond
Speedy: Well there you are folks, straight from the horse’s mouth! Nick names are funny things and always appear to have a history behind them and I think I am right in saying that we Sri Lankans excel in this. I mean to say, how insulting is it to call a person “gandaya” because of his unpleasant olfactory associations! But I know of one called as such!
Rajan: Yes indeed. Remember how we distinguished the Balas by calling them Yankee Bala, Thatta Bala and Con Bala! Hilarious!
Speedy: Priceless Rajan!
We know of course that you entered the Faculty in 1962. The photo I am showing you came from your “signature book” which we all had to maintain. Was yours a direct entry or did you do the six months’ course first?
Rajan: That photo, gosh, it seems such a long time ago! About my entering the Medical Faculty, I first did the six months’ course in Zoology at the University Science Faculty on Thurstan Road. As Lama mentioned, we had two, one hour lectures, and one practical for a week. Like Lama, I too worked but at the PWD in Ratmalana, basically counting cars in various parts of the country.
Speedy: And remind us of any special memories of that time.
Rajan: Others who worked with me there were MG and Halin who entered Peradeniya. I saw quite a bit of the country from Batticaloa to Matara, Kegalle, Chilaw and Negombo.
Speedy: And how did you get about? I mean your form of transport?
Rajan: I used my true and trusted Vespa if the distance was within 50 miles, as far as Chilaw. We were taken by PWD transport for distances greater than that and were housed usually in a school and paid subsistence. My salary was Rs 5 per day, and that was a lot considering a “punt” and plain tea was only 10 cents!
Speedy: Coming to your schooling, I know you are a Thomian and I have long forgiven you for that!
Rajan: You mean you are not jealous of me anymore that I went to the best Boys school in the Country! It was a wonderful time and I shall always be grateful to my Alma Mater.
Speedy: I know we Royalists and Thomians exchange “insults”, but we have the greatest respect for each other, do you agree?
Rajan: Of course I do Speedy, goes without saying.
Speedy: Any recollections of days at STC.
Rajan: Yes one of my classmates from Standard 1 was KD (KDPR). We took the bus to school and of course the wealthier ones were driven to school. We would wait at the bus stop and one of the frequent ride givers was Miss Bay our Std 1 teacher in a little Baby Austin. KD living in Bambalapitiya invariably got picked up and by the time the car reached Wellawatte where we were living then, the car was full, but KD would put his tongue out at me and shake his head! As some of you know, I was unable to pass Tamil at the SSC because I used to treat the class as a joke (which I regret very much now). I was sent to Jaffna and with the teachers there and Tuition from Mr Iyer who taught Tamil at Royal (no praise to the school of course). I was able to pass and enter the University.
Speedy: KD or Ranjit Dambawinna always had a great sense of humour.
Were you good at sport?
Rajan: Yes .I did get Colours in Rowing from the University, captained the Colombo campus and was selected as Cox of the Ceylon crew at the All-India Rowing Regatta in Colombo and Madras.
Speedy: I bet many didn’t know that. You said you were a Cox, no, let’s leave it that! Let us talk about your trusty Vespa which I had the privilege of riding pillion with you on numerous occasions.
Rajan: I loved that Vespa. I inherited it from my brother Kulan who had passed the bar exam about the time I entered the University, and he had a car. The Vespa lasted through my years in the Medical schooling, provided rides to men, women (or shall I say boys and girls) children, of all races castes and creed. Besides, it took me as far as Badulla to as close as your home in Edward Lane. Mine was not as new as Lama’s. It was EN series but served me faithfully.
Speedy: Whenever I think of you and the Med Faculty days, I always picture you in that Vespa with a sideways lean to balance the offset engine. Fine, let’s talk about the Medical Faculty. Can you recall your first week’s experience?
Rajan: I remember the ﬁrst day of Registration, after we had ﬁnished the Registration, rather happy that we had escaped a rag. As a few of us were leaving the building, we were escorted to Blom for questioning and of course a workout. But as luck would have it, some guy shouted “Rajasuriya” and our seniors disappeared like ﬂies and one guy told us to jump over the wall (may have been into Bunter’s house) and disappear!
Speedy: The magic word Rajasuriya! I hated the Rag and still feel it is nothing but harassment, often for rather dubious reasons and should not be tolerated in a civilised society. Of course the word “rag” can take other more benign forms such as dressing up in fancy dress and collecting money for Charity, nothing against that, most welcome.
Rajan: I agree.
Speedy: Entering the Faculty, how great a transition was it in your life?
Rajan: It was a wish satisfying my father who wanted all his sons, five in all, to become doctors, he being one. He felt there were only three worthwhile professions - Medicine, Law and Engineering. I wanted to be a pilot but my dear father stopped it, and I am so glad he did for today I have been in the noblest profession, like all of us.
Speedy: Absolutely agree. If I were to live my life again, I would still choose to be a doctor. Let us reflect for a moment on our teachers. We all remember the great teachers we had and would you like to talk a bit about them?
Rajan: I remember our block days and those signatures in Anatomy and dear Prof Chanmugam’s signature class probably half our batch getting his signature almost without having to answer any questions.
Speedy: Any other memories of our teachers?
Rajan: I respected all our teachers and lecturers, but one whom I got to know very closely was the late Dr Ernie Pieris (EVP). I did a rotation with him and subsequently became quite friendly. I was President of the Students' Christian Movement (SCM) and he was an advisor and would meet with him quite often seeking his advice and counsel. After I Passed out (my jokes about this asking when did I recover), I was posted to be Intern to Dr Ernie Pieris. As I was leaving Ceylon to do the Internship overseas, I did not tell him before I left which I regret very much to this day.
Speedy: I had ward classes with Dr EVP and he was a brilliant and inspiring teacher. You were extremely fortunate to be his Intern. Let us now talk about the famous Law-Medical match.
Rajan: Who can forget that, and the aftermath! However, during the week following the incident ,Harsha and I were summoned to the Dean’s ofﬁce and were grilled by Prof. Abhayaratne and Prof. Kodagoda. As far as I remember, we were told to come up with the names, but our batch was united and took the two weeks suspension gracefully (had a good holiday). Our lady classmates made copies of the lectures and distributed them to us. I wonder if we publicly thanked them. If we didn’t, ladies, thanks a lot for your kindness! Some of us went to KD’s place to study at night, how much we studied I don't know, but we did enjoy KD’s entertainment and not to mention the Roti and Hoppers from Mayfair.
Speedy: Did you do well in the exams?
Rajan: Well, I ﬂunked both Anatomy and Physiology, and thanks to you Speedy, I passed all the exams on my ﬁrst attempt after that. As you know, we studied together and your disciplined way of studying helped me a lot.
Speedy: Yes, those were great times and I enjoyed your company very much. You helped me too, it was mutually beneficial.
Rajan: Life those days were one of my happiest. Saturday night parties or movies and the adjourning to Lion House for a night cap. The Block Concert, and the plays and the Final Year play, for which I was chastised by the Dean and remember my good friend Vish telling Prof that he advised me (BS!) Vish had as many Arracks or more than I did, before we went on the stage).
Speedy: Medical Faculty days will remain memorable to all of us. Any special memories you would like to share with readers?
Rajan: There are many more incidents during our days at Kynsey Road not to mention all our heartthrobs, the parties, the pranks and not to mention our services to the community. As Suri mentioned, quite a few of us sacriﬁced a Saturday afternoon in the slums of Kollupitiya, volunteering on behalf of the TB Association checking on patients and making sure they were taking their medication and distributing nutritive material such as milk powder.
Speedy: I remember studying with you and others at my parents’ house in Edward Lane, Kollupitiya. The garage had a very small room at the back with a separate entrance. I used to share this as a study with my brother. But after he entered the Engineering Faculty, I had it all to myself.
Rajan: Glad you touched on this as I must mention my study partners and our study sessions. You Speedy, Lubber and later Harsha, met in this study. We met around 10 to 11 pm and started with our escapades for the day. Each of us had a sort of girlfriend and we exchanged our experiences (or lack of it!), and when that discussion was over, there was intense study. I am ever grateful to my study partners, and I truly believe my success has been a result of this grounding.
Speedy: Let us move on Rajan and talk about your life after completing the Finals.
Rajan: As most of you know, I left shortly after the ﬁnal results. Some might wonder why I left. Looking back, there were at least two reasons I can think of, 50 plus years later. The ﬁrst during the ﬁnal months in the ﬁnal year I was in a studying mood, and wanted a post graduate degree. I felt if I stayed in Ceylon. I would end up as a DMO in some god forsaken place.
Speedy: And the second?
Rajan: I had an offer to complete my internship and service in Malaysia, where I could earn enough for education in England.
Speedy: I see. It must have been hard to ignore such an opportunity.
Rajan: Indeed it was and I am so thankful I did take it up. With a close family member as head of the Health Department, I was posted to Kuala Lumpur the premier Hospital in Malaysia. But I was posted to the surgical service headed by an arrogant “I am king and Lord” Malaysian Physician. He had training in England and the US, and his team comprised of a Senior Registrar, sometimes a Junior registrar and two Intern House Ofﬁcers. The Senior Registrar had passed the FRCS (not like the present Sri Lankan cabinet minister and former Royal College Student!).
Speedy: What was it like to work there and what sort of hospital was it?
Rajan: There were only two surgical units and each unit was on call for a week at a time. The boss rarely came in if at all, the Senior Registrars pretty much the same. Most of the emergencies were handled by the Junior Registrar and the Interns. In the six months as an Intern, I had performed quite a few surgeries, both minor and major. When I ﬁnished the Internship, my surgical boss requested I be sent to his team as a Junior Registrar. This gave me more experience and at this point, I decided I wanted to specialise in a surgical specialty. The surgical text book being much larger and bigger than Ob-Gyn, I chose the easy way out and chose to specialise in Ob/Gyn!
Speedy: Something crucial happened there, something which determined the future direction of your life. Please share it with us.
Rajan: Sure thing Speedy. While I was a Junior Registrar, I met my wife Queelan, who was a Singapore graduate working as an Intern. We are now married for 47 plus years with 3 children and 4 grandchildren.This was probably the best thing I ever did and I am very grateful to Queelan for her love and support throughout my life with her.
Speedy: Wonderful! I am sure readers will also like to hear more about your children. I had the pleasure of meeting all of them in my visits to you over the years and I am sure you and Queelan are quite rightly proud of them.
Rajan: Yes, we certainly are. My eldest daughter is Neethi who is a Physician and practices Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in San Diego. My son Romesh is a Journalist and was Editor of the Time magazine,. He later worked as Chief of Staff to the Under-Secretary of State at the State Department, and now works on the editorial board at the Bloomberg Businessweek. My youngest Meera just completed her doctorate in Education and is the Head of a school in Los Angeles.
Speedy: It is lovely to hear of their success and I have no doubt that the home atmosphere and encouragement you both provided, were largely instrumental. Well done! And picking up from where we left, you next went to England?
Rajan: That is correct. After two years I proceeded to England. I did stop in Colombo for a few days and sat for the ECFMG, surprisingly with lot of my classmates. Like most of us, I started in London doing a few locums and got my ﬁrst job in Romford at the then Old Church Hospital Romford maternity hospital. From there I moved on to the Royal Northern and Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
Speedy: I know you then decided to go to the US. Tell us about how this happened.
Rajan: It was during my time at the Royal Free getting the training in Obs/Gyn that I thought of going to the US. After having completed my training and the exams, I decided to settle in the US on the instigation of my brother who too was a Physician in Chest Diseases.
Speedy: What was it like at the beginning?
Rajan: I was exempted for one year of Residency and completed my training at the University of Rochester. Once I ﬁnished my training and passed the American Boards in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, I joined the Faculty and taught for approximately five years.
Speedy: You seemed well settled there and I wonder what made you move out to San Francisco?
Rajan: The cold got to me Speedy. Rochester is snow bound from November to April and after a few snowskids into the ditch, on the instigation of some of our friends, Lareef, Wickremasekeran, Anton and Vish, I too decided to relocate, but unlike the others who were around Los Angeles, I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, because my wife being Chinese, wanted a Chinatown. San Fran won!
Speedy: What sort of work did you start off with?
Rajan: I started private practice in a suburban town east of San Francisco and was in practice for approximately 25 years. During this time, I served as Head of the Department of Ob/gyn, Chief of the hospital Medical staff, and the Academic side as Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University
Speedy: That is quite impressive Rajan. Do you think you would have done as well if you stayed in the UK or is there something special about opportunities in the US?
Rajan: I really don’t know Speedy. At the time I was in England in the early 70s, there were few if any overseas Consultants in my field. Most non-English doctors were Senior Registrars at the highest, or went into General Practice (GP). The US gave opportunities for all and I took these offers and that may have made the difference. I still love London, but the weather was not my cup of tea.
Speedy: Did you continue in this path or did you change direction?
Rajan: I developed severe Osteoarthritis of my right shoulder and had to have a shoulder replacement. This ended my active clinical career. I then started working as an Administrator in the hospital as a Medical Director and subsequently in an insurance company initially as a Medical Director and subsequently as Chief Medical Ofﬁcer. This is very different. I had to learn all specialities and sub specialities (I have Harrisons Principles at my bedside!) mainly managing appropriate use of resources also associated with it. I also was elected by my community to the directorship for healthcare in my district and ran for ofﬁce for two successive terms and won.
Speedy: Recognition of your capabilities is always rewarding. That must have been a big change and did it take a long time to get used to your new role?
Rajan: In life Speedy, you must adapt to circumstances and be willing to learn and do what is best for you. I knew my surgical career was over and I just moved on and learned to like what I did and I am quite proud of my achievements. During this period I served as the Chair of the Board, and negotiated to build a new Hospital for the community. As in all countries, there is lack of healthcare for the underprivileged. Working with a non-proﬁt agency, I helped to start a primary care clinic for these people which is now federally qualiﬁed and funded when previously it was dependent on charities and volunteer services from Physicians, nurse practitioners and nurses.
Speedy: That was awesome! Well done. Doctors have so many roles and serving the Community is such an important one.
Rajan: Thanks Speedy. Well, time marches on and I am now retired, my wife and I provide emergency babysitting services for our Grandchildren ﬂying to Washington DC, to Los Angeles to San Diego.
Speedy: That is amazing! That is a lot of flying and travelling. Your children are very fortunate to have parents like you.
When I visited you in San Francisco, I recall playing Golf with you at a lovely course. Do you still indulge in the Noble Game?
Rajan: Sadly no. I gave up golf because of my shoulder problems but I hope to start again.
Speedy: You must Rajan. Golf is balm for the body and mind!
Any other projects, interests and hobbies?
Rajan: I am learning the Ukulele and also spend a lot of time reading, mainly non ﬁction History books. Now with spare time, I have dedicated time to my religion Christianity and learning more about other religions. One thing that my reading has taught me that is common to all is this -“Do no harm, instead do good to your fellow beings” or in Latin, “Nolite nocere non est, pro vobis est facere bonum sive aliorum comparandam”
Speedy: A noble sentiment indeed. What do you consider your proudest achievement?
Rajan: This a difficult question because there are many things I am proud of, but probably the proudest is that I have a loving family of children, grandchildren and siblings not to mention my faith. I also have to say that I am also extremely proud to have been able to witness the development of many friends who have gone on to achieve success in many fields be it Music, Finance or just being good and caring Physicians.
Speedy: And that, Dr Rajan Ratnesar, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Alumnus of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ceylon, Colombo, Medical Administrator, Husband, Father and Grandfather, valued colleague and sincere friend, is a good time to close this Speedy Interview, the 6th in my series. Thanks again for talking to me.
Rajan: Speedy my long standing friend, it has been my pleasure.