How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences – By Dr Harold Gunatillake

How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences – By Dr Harold Gunatillake

Dr Harold Gunatillake

How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences - By  Dr. Harold Gunatillake

At the Government House party after receiving the award- May 12th 2022

Written by Dr Harold Gunatillake OAM FRCS,FIACS,FICS,AM(Sing), MBBS(Cey)

In 1969, I returned to the island with my fellowship degree and much training with one of the famous surgeons in London, Mr Norman Tanner, and as Senior registrar at Queen Mary’s Hospital Orthopaedics.

I still recollect the interview for the selection of Senior Orthopedic Registrar at Queen Mary’s, sitting in front of a panel of professionals and administrators, and over 50 doctors sitting in the waiting room waiting for their interview for a single position, many locally qualified Britons. I was asked, “Mr Gun, what are your plans coming from Ceylon seeking positions in hospitals in the UK?”

My prompt reply was that I have been sent to the UK for specialised training to obtain the fellowship degree, return to Ceylon, and spread the ‘Gospel of the training obtained’ to serve my people. Further, I have been sent on a government scholarship to do so.

How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences - By Dr Harold GunatillakeAmong many other eligible candidates, I was selected for the position, mainly Britons.

My dream then was to return and serve my people and aspire to be a top surgeon, hopefully following my gurus’ footsteps like Dr Anthonis and Dr Gunewardene, visiting Surgeons at Colombo Hospitals.

After returning from the UK, I served as Resident Surgeon in the Accident service, Colombo, followed by a short period as locum Surgeon in Kandy and then transferred to Badulla Provincial Hospital as General Surgeon in 1970.

Something unique at the time I served as a Surgeon in Kandy was that when you are on call, the hospital sends the ambulance to your residence and drops you back at your home after attending the surgical emergency.

That system does not exist today after the invention of mobile telephones. 1971 Revolt (Insurrection)

In 1971, if I recollect Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection (also known as the 1971 Revolt) against the socialist United Front Government of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike began.

The decision taken by the nine senior members of the JVP when they met at the Sangaramaya Temple of the Vidyodaya University on April 2, 1971, was to capture State power by attacking all the police stations in the country on the night of April 5, 1971.”– “Rohan Gunaratna: Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution? The Inside Story of the JVP” One Sunday morning, people with many gunshot injuries were brought to Badulla General Hospital, and I spent a whole day in the operating theatre attending to the casualties. It was like a war zone. Some seriously head-injured patients were dispatched to General Hospital in Colombo.

How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences - By Dr Harold GunatillakeDuring this grey period, the hospitals were short of most disposable items, including antibiotics like penicillin and saline transfusions, among other essentials.

Our wives had to queue up to purchase clothes from the CWE corporative shops. Even for the essential provisions, there were long queues at the CWE. Even there were bread queues at a later period.

Private practice after hours was banned, and we were given Rs 500 per month as a nonpensionable allowance.
Life became hard, and I felt gloomy about the future, and the decision was made to leave the country for better pastures.

Period of Brain drain.

I was offered a senior surgical registrar’s position in the main General Hospital in Singapore. Dr N.M.Perera was the minister of finance during this period.

How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences - By  Dr. Harold GunatillakeHe stopped giving foreign exchange to anyone leaving the country to stop the ‘brain drain’ during that grey period in Ceylon.

I resigned from government service and left for Singapore with my family; I had no money in my pocket. Still, we were lucky that Prof Kanaks Anatomy professor in the teaching Hospital in Singapore, our one-time senior lecturer in Anatomy in Colombo Medical Faculty, was there to receive us at the airport and welcome us.

After serving for three years as Senior surgical registrar in Outram Road General Hospital, we decided to settle down in Australia. One vivid incident must be mentioned for my readers, a most unique and exciting episode. As Senior Registrars, we get a date monthly to perform minor surgery under local anaesthesia on outdoor patients.

On one of my days on duty, there was a shortage of trolley boys. They are young boys who arrive from Malaysia to earn some pocket money.

As there were very few trolley boys on duty, I walked to the outpatient department, placed the patient on the trolley, wheeled him to the operating theatre, and wheeled him back after the minor surgery to the outpatient department and wished him good luck.

The next day, it was highlighted in the Straight Times newspaper that an Indian Trolley boy had operated on a Chinese patient.

The high-ups in the department of health in Singapore were shocked and disturbed. After making inquiries, the hospital’s medical superintendent pinpointed that I had done the operation on this patient. I was called to the office. To my surprise, there were many officials from the department of health, and I realised that I was in trouble.

I explained the situation and the circumstances, and their faces changed, and they thanked me.

Our migration to the ‘Lucky Country.’

We were passed to come to Australia, and in February 1975, we settled in the suburb Jannali in New South Wales.

The reason how we settled down in Jannali, purely and mainly in a white Australian suburb, was interesting, as it was a racially insulated white society, passed through an act of 1901 in Australian history, which stated that fundamental legislation of the new Commonwealth of Australia that effectively stopped all non-European immigration into the country and that contributed to the development of a racially insulated white society.

Mr Bates, the ex-Mayor of the Sutherland shire, was holidaying in Singapore with his partner. His travel guide was known to me, and when his partner had a medical emergency, the guide contacted me, and I promptly attended to the need. Then, we hosted them for lunch in a nearby restaurant, the usual tradition in Singapore to entertain visitors. Mr Bates was so happy and asked me what he could do for me. I said we had been passed to come to Australia and hopefully prepare ourselves for the change. He said, “please let him know if you are coming to Sydney”.

He kept the promise, and as we landed at the Sydney airport, he was waiting for us in his limousine. We were taken to Jannali, where his office apartment was in his arcade, ‘ Bates Archade’. He introduced me to the bank manager and other important officials in Jannali, and our settling in was smooth and comfortable.

My following itinerary was to find a surgical job in a hospital. The same week, I made an appointment with the medical superintendent of Sutherland hospital, three railway stations from Jannali. I was interviewed and was lucky to start work the following week as the surgical registrar to two Surgeons.

It was easy then to find a position without further local training, with a British qualification. The United Kingdom provides the largest source of overseas doctors or International Medical Graduates (IMGs) working in Australia. Of course, no doctor coming from another country, including Sri Lanka, is guaranteed to be able to work in Australia.

I was privileged to get jobs in this hospital when Sri Lankan surgeons visited Australia for long-term holidays. At that time, we were registered as specialist surgeons with the right to private practice.

Sutherland Hospital staff was friendly, and my working there was most pleasant. My two bosses loved me.

I must now relate a story of my experience working in that hospital. An affluent lady was admitted with a popliteal aneurysm for surgery. Popliteal means the backside of the knee, and the aneurysm is a bulge arising from the main artery at the back of the knee. This appears as a pulsating bulge and needs early surgery.

In the seventies, we had no vascular surgeons, and general surgeons did such specialised work as a side interest.

One of my bosses got the retired professor of Surgery from Sydney Hospital in the CBD to perform surgery on this lady.

It was fixed on a Sunday morning. My boss requested I assist this professor, and I was introduced to the professor as the best registrar to help in the operation. The professor did not look at me when my boss made that compliment; then, I realised he might not like ‘Indian-looking’ guys.

We scrubbed together, meaning washing hands before the procedure, but no word from him. I confidently assisted him in the surgical procedure- no word came out from him during the operation.

At the end of the procedure, I could impress upon him whether he would take an essential step in the last bite of the stitching in the closure of the operating cut in the opened blood vessel.

In vascular surgery, before you take the last bite to close the cut, the distal clamp must be removed for the blood to gush through the wound to prevent air from getting into the vessel. Such air bubbles entering a blood vessel can travel towards the lungs and lead to an imminent death from air embolism.

I waited for that moment, and as though likewise, he was attempting to close the last stitch without releasing the distal clamp in the vessel.

I got my chance and shouted, “Sir, may I release this clamp”. He looked at me for the first time and nodded.

After the operation, while leaving the operating theatre, this racist professor put his arm around my shoulder and politely asked, “tell me who you are?”

We sat in the lounge and became the best of friends, and one piece of advice the professor gave me was not to waste time as a registrar and get into the private practice field and make your money.

I accepted his advice and got a position in a private practice group in the suburb of Cabramatta, occupied by primarily European migrants. I did my surgery in Fairfield Heights private Hospital, and everything was smooth, and the staff was most cooperative.

Three months later, one of the staff nurses in that private hospital came to consult me professionally. She said while conversing that she was the one who was there on the first day of operations in the theatre to check whether I could operate, sent by the hospital’s matron.

A great opportunity I enjoyed in Australia was that we could go for conferences overseas and claim a tax deduction for ourselves and our partners. In Sri Lanka, that is once a lifetime event.

I used that opportunity by attending Cosmetic surgery conferences in various parts of the world and workshops on cosmetic procedures in Paris, Rome, and London.

I developed my technique of operative procedure for an operation called ‘Abdominoplasty’ to remove excess fat and skin from the flap that hangs like an apron in your abdominal wall.

This technique was named after my name, “Gunatillake technique of abdominoplasty”, and I had the opportunity of describing this procedure at many conferences in cities like Paris, Rome, Florida, Los Angeles, Japan, Peru and Bangkok.

I was the first cosmetic surgeon who performed liposuction- a procedure to suck fat out from redundant areas of your body. My first patient was Mrs Elliot, and I remember my anaesthetist asking me whether I was performing jungle surgery.

During the past 20 years, I have engaged in writing health articles and publishing a health newsletter named “Health & Views”. I have produced over 75 YouTubes on various topics, such as health, Sri Lankan historical events, and the present crisis in Sri Lanka. I have written over 400 health articles you can view most of them on my website: www.Doctorharold.com.

I have written health articles for Sunday Leader and before Sunday Island. Of course, Sunder Leader is defunct now.

I have engaged in Community activities among the ex-pat Sri Lankan community in Australia, mainly in my state-New, South Wales (NSW). I was the president of the Sri Lankan Association of NSW for two consecutive years-1997 and 1998. I was the first treasurer of the Sinhalese Cultural Forum. I have been engaged in giving public talks to our community on health topics and showing my videos on the LTTE war and the historical sites of Sri Lanka.

I am happy that I ended up in Australia as the healthcare system is high quality, timely and affordable at every stage of my life. It is a very safe and stable country to live in, with a friendly, relaxed culture that makes it easier to achieve a comfortable lifestyle.

It is a multicultural society and no more a whites-only country. Aboriginal people are well recognised and honoured as the country’s first people. Their cultures, religions, and traditions are well respected, and they now participate in the celebrations on Australia Day on the 26th of January each year.

I received an ‘Order of Australia Medal. The award for medicine and community services to the Sri Lankan people is an excellent example of how foreign people are recognised for their achievements in this country.

How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences - By Dr Harold Gunatillake

How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences - By Dr Harold Gunatillake

It is a country of opportunities for young people, whether locals or migrant youth and an open government with an ever-growing economy.

I want to say to those young people who wish to leave Sri Lanka for a better life and higher education that they must think of Australia as the destination for their dreams of improving their future.


About the author: Dr Harold Gunatillake, Health Editor, is a Member of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore. Member of the Australian Association of Cosmetic Surgery. Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (UK), Corresponding Fellow of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery. Member of the International Societies of Cosmetic Surgery, Fellow of the International College of Surgery (US).

Australian diplomat for the International Society of Plastic, Aesthetic & Reconstructive Surgery. Board Member of the International Society of Aesthetic Surgery. Member of the American Academy of Aesthetic & Restorative Surgery. Life Member of the College of Surgeons, Sri Lanka. Bachelor of Medicine & Bachelor of Surgery (Cey). Government scholar for higher studies in the UK.

(This article is prepared as requested for the 75th Annual Celebration magazine of the Sri Lanka High Commission in Canberra, Australia)

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