How I made good in Australia, some reminiscences – Dr. Harold Gunatillake
Dr. Harold Gunatillake
In 1969, I returned to the island with my fellowship degree and intensive training with one of the famous surgeons in London, Mr Norman Tanner, having served as Senior Registrar at Queen Mary’s Hospital Orthopaedics. I still recollect the interview for the selection for this post, sitting in front of a panel of professionals and administrators and over 50 applicants sitting in the waiting room waiting for their interview for a single position. Many of them were 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 specialized 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. Among many other eligible candidates, mainly Britons, I was selected for the position.
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 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 to the surgical emergency. That system does not exist today after the invention of mobile telephones.
I recollect the 1971 Revolt (insurrection) when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection against the Socialist United Front Government of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The decision to revolt was taken by nine senior members of the JVP when they met at the Sangaramaya Temple of the Vidyodaya University on April 2, 1971, seeking 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 (where I was stationed), 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.
During 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 cooperative shops. Even for the essential provisions, there were long queues at the CWE. There were even bread queues at a later period. Private practice after hours was banned, and we were given Rs 500 per month as a non-pensionable allowance in lieu.
Life became hard and I was gloomy about the future; then the decision was made to leave the country for greener pastures. During this period 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 at the time. He stopped giving foreign exchange to anyone leaving the country to stop the ‘brain drain’ during that grey period. I resigned from government service and left for Singapore with my family with 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 incident there must be mentioned here, a most unique and exciting episode. As Senior Registrars, we got a date monthly to perform minor surgery under local anesthesia on outdoor patients. On one of my days on that duty, there was a shortage of ‘trolley boys’ – young boys coming 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 OPD and wished him good luck. The next day this was highlighted in the Straits Times newspaper with the story 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 reported to the authorities that I had done the operation on this patient. I was summoned to the office where many officials from the department of health were present and I feared I was in trouble. I explained what happened 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. How we settled in Jannali, then mainly a white Australian suburb, was interesting. Through an Act of 1901, a White Australia policy effectively stopped all non-European immigration into the country contributing 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 to lunch in a nearby restaurant, the normal tradition in Singapore for entertaining visitors.
Mr Bates was very happy and asked me what he could do for me. I said we had been passed to come to Australia and were preparing ourselves for the change. He said, “please let me know if you are coming to Sydney.” He was waiting for us in his limousine when we landed at Sydney. We were taken to Jannali where he owned the ‘Bates Arcade,’ a commercial and residential block.
He introduced me to the bank manager and other important officials in Jannali, and our settling in was smooth and comfortable. I then had 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 with a British qualification without further local training.
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 work in Australia. I was privileged to get jobs in this hospital for Sri Lankan surgeons visiting Australia for extended 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 an experience working in that hospital. An affluent lady was admitted for surgery with a popliteal aneurysm. Popliteal means the back of the knee and the aneurysm is a bulge arising from the main artery there. This appears as a pulsating bulge and needs early surgery. In the seventies, we had no vascular surgeons and general surgeons did such specialized work.
One of my bosses got the retired Professor of Surgery from Sydney Hospital in the CBD to perform the surgery on this lady. It was fixed for 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 paid me that compliment; I realized he might not like ‘Indian-looking’ assistants. We scrubbed together before the procedure, but no word from him. I confidently assisted him in the surgical procedure without his saying anything during the operation.
At the end of the procedure, I wondered whether he would take an essential step in the last bite of the stitching in the closure of the incision 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 when 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. One piece of advice the professor gave me was not to waste time as a registrar and get into the private practice 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. 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 sent by the hospital matron on my first day in the operating theater there to check my competence.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 in 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 a 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 YouTube videos on various topics, such as health, Sri Lankan historical events, and the present crisis in Sri Lanka, among others. I have written over 400 health articles which you can view most of them on my website: www.Doctorharold.com. I have written health articles for the now defunct Sunday Leader and the Sunday Island.
I have engaged in community activities among the expat Sri Lankan community in Australia, mainly in 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 migrated to Australia as the healthcare system is high quality, timely and affordable. 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 recognized and honored as the country’s first people. Their cultures, religions, and traditions are respected and they now participate in the celebrations of Australia Day on the January 26 each year.
I received an ‘Order of Australia’ medal last May. The award for medicine and community services to the Sri Lankan people is an excellent example of how foreign people are recognized for their achievements in this country. Australia is a country of opportunities for young people, whether locals or migrant youth with an open government with an ever-growing economy.I want to tell those young people who wish to leave Sri Lanka for a better life and higher education that they must think of Australia as a destination for achieving 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)