Sunil Seneviratne Epa
Photo Credit: Author
When did I first want to be a doctor? No clear recollection at all, except that I remember very clearly my father telling me and my family that Sula (his pet name for me) would be a good lawyer one day. His said I argued my case well in any quarrel with the siblings - six boys and two girls.
The first ten years of my childhood were spent in a jungle village off Anuradhapura called Galkadawala. My first school was the village school where my father was the head teacher and my mother the only other teacher! The total number of kids in the school was 50-60. It was real fun mingling with the village “urchins”. We lived in the school premises and I can’t remember any distinction between home and school, as the only two teachers were also at home. Climbing trees was our most popular hobby. Mango trees were a popular target and fruits were consumed on top of the tree! Other hobbies (on the sly) were shooting birds with a catapult, catching butterflies, squirrels etc. Bathing in the village tank, just a short walk away was great as was watching people catching fresh-water fish in a “cane basket”. Another popular pastime was going to a wood full of woodapple, palu, mora and weera trees. Life continued like this till I reached nine years when my father realized I was getting nowhere and thought it was time to be serious and sent me to a school in Anuradhapura. My parents then got transferred to Kelaniya and I went to Thurstan College from grade six. My school career was a chequered one – I was the last (39th position) in my class at grade six. When my father saw the report card, he “treated” me well. Any way thanks to my father’s “treatment” or not, by grade eight I was amongst the first three. I progressed through the OL’s and AL’s in the biology stream. But I remember very well my father preventing me from becoming a dentist I was selected to Dental at the first AL attempt. “You should be a doctor and sit the exam again” he said. I still marvel at his confidence when I lacked it myself. May be his background in astrology helped his predictive powers! The mere thought of sitting again was a nightmare - but my father stood his ground and I had no choice. I cried for several days refusing to eat. I settled down with my mother’s support. How and when my father changed his stance and wanted his Sula to become a doctor, nobody knows.
Now to fast forward the story - our faculty life was memorable and followed by internship at Colombo South with Nalini, Kumar, Chandrakumar, Nelum, Podi Ariya, Upali to name a few. That too was full of fond memories. After completing internship, everybody had their aspirations and I was no exception. Doing post graduate studies was the fashion, but no local post-graduate exams were available. Foreign travel was prohibited for doctors unless authorized by the Prime Minister. Frustrated and felt very bad. I then applied to the Biochemistry department as I liked chemistry. I got the job and this period in biochemistry was another memorable period of life. I had the pleasure of meeting Guy Dabrera as a colleague. Guy was a smart, handsome, well-mannered gentleman who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. Gnanalatha Thenabadu was another colleague. We could chat a lot during our free times, which we had in plenty (no FB or Internet). I remember one episode vividly. Guy and I went to meet the VC PPGL Siriwardena over a salary issue. We were such skilled negotiators that PPGL lost his temper and told Guy “can you give that to me in writing” when Guy referred to a matter during our conversation. I realized the trouble we were in and the two of us beat a hasty retreat. We saved our jobs and salary increment.
I then gained admission to the Free University, West Berlin, for my PhD upon acceptance of research proposal. It was a big challenge as I had to learn German. I got basic German at the Goethe Institute in Colombo which was barely enough for asking for directions to go to a place etc. I had to do two months of full-time language studies in Berlin, and then only could I start. Since I had to write my thesis in German and also had to defend my thesis at a formal interview in German, it was definitely a challenge which I somehow managed.
Looking back, these look like a dream to me now. After intensive work towards my research degree, I sat the MRCP(UK) exam. I returned to Sri Lanka as a clinician cum researcher. I then decided to be a clinician seriously for the first time. My marriage to Sharmini may have changed my fate, as her father was a GP in Matara. I acquired a private hospital there. My friends thought I was going off my head for going to the private sector with all my academic capabilities. That chapter is a success and spans thirty-five years to date. My father who so wanted me to become a doctor was no more when I seriously became one. Now at almost the end of my career, and after being a physician for nearly 35 years with reasonable success, I still wonder how my father’s initial prediction of my becoming a lawyer changed and what changed his mind to “order” me to become a doctor. I occasionally ponder, what if I became a lawyer instead. The day I got inducted as president of the SLMA was a moment I wished my father was there to appreciate and be proud of his Sula, the doctor at the helm. How true, life is only a journey not a destination! We have to keep travelling till we die, and only time will tell what else there is in store. So, let us not lose hope even at this hour of global calamity.
Sunil Seneviratne Epa