I was asked to call at a government office on a government holiday and was more than happy to accept this invitation as it was a response to my earlier request for an interview with Dr. Sudharshana Arambegedera, Deputy Director of the Medical Supplies Division of the Health Ministry.
“You must have been surprised when you were invited to my office on a holiday,” he said.
“It is my nature to work on holidays. I work in a place where I could not skip duty even on holidays. We have the responsibility of a patient’s life in our hands,” Dr. Arambegedera declared.
I wondered how such a busy person holding a very responsible position writes songs, sings and maintains a blog narrating his experiences. He is a medical doctor, singer and songster all rolled into one. That explains why we wanted to meet him.
“People say they have barely enough time to do all that they want to do. It is not admissible. The place where I work is always busy. The position I hold has many responsibilities. Still I find time to engage in my pastime activities. I write songs, sing songs, not forgetting my other domestic commitments. I am an outlandish doctor,” he explained.
His blog page explains his desire to engage in art and his love for the profession. I thought of starting his life story beginning from his childhood.
“Though I was born in Kapuwatte, Ja-Ela my hometown is Balangoda where my ancestral home is situated and my mother still resides. Both my parents worked in the Government Handlooms Department. My father was a weaving instructor to blind children and my mother was a designer. Most of the time we lived in rented houses. When the landlord visited our house every time to collect the monthly rent, I heard my mother heaving no sooner than he left. Then we did not own a house of our own. But my father was charitable enough to give shelter to his blind trainee students free of charge,” Dr. Arambegedera recalled his parents’ generous nature.
“I inherited my parents’ generosity. My father who owned a few weaving machines, trained blind students at home free of charge. I never saw him receiving any payment for his service to them. I only witnessed his largesse.
“I received my education at the Galahitiyawa Central College. From my childhood I had a knack for singing and writing songs. But I never dreamed of becoming a doctor. I selected the bioscience stream for my advanced level studies and though I was a keen student I did not have high ambitions.
“But a certain experience, a turning point in my life, drove me to become a doctor. One day I went to the Ragama Hospital to get a tetanus injection. I waited in the queue from 8 am till 12 noon and though I was next in line the doctor refused to see me because it was lunchtime and asked me to come again at 2 pm.
“When I explained it to the lady doctor that I had a tuition class at 2 pm at Gampaha, she advised me to return the following day as she showed no concern to my pleading. There was a Tamil lady doctor in the adjoining room attending to patients. I explained my situation to her and she patiently listened to my request and wrote the prescription for the injection.
“While I returned on receiving the injection I saw the lady doctor who refused to see me chatting with a nurse and having a hearty laugh at her desk. That incident inspired me deeply to become a doctor at any cost,” recalled Dr. Arambegedera.
The bitter experience was the driving force that inspired Sudarshana Arambegedera to become Dr. Sudarshana Arambegedera and serve poor patients with dedication and compassion.
“I was selected to the Colombo Medical Faculty but the university was closed for a prolonged period due to disturbances in the country and using that time I did some private tuition in English, Science and Math for students and charged a nominal fee of Rs.60 monthly. As I charged a low fee and my students showed good results my classes had a good attendance. I was self-sustaining throughout my four years in the medical faculty never becoming a burden to my parents,” he confided.
Dr. Arambegedera started his career at the Deraniygala hospital, a far-flung place where public commuter services were very poor.
“At the Deraniyagala hospital I started seeing patients at 5 am, an ungodly hour, till 11 am examining more than 300 patients in that session and making sure that the patients could return home by 11.30 by bus just in case they would be forced to loiter without public transport.
“I was a stickler to rules and a workaholic. I was nicknamed ‘Kannadiya’ (wearer of spectacles) or ‘Yaka Mahattaya’ (devil) and was famous by those nick names in the whole Deraniyagala area,” he confessed.
All was not well for this dedicated ‘Yaka’ doctor. Those who resented his honest work saw to it that he was transferred out to the Kegalle hospital after three years. Soon he was reinstated in his former hospital due to strong pleadings from the public who wanted him back for his dedicated service which they did not receive from his substitutes.
“After serving five years in Deraniyagala I was transferred to the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital for a brief period on passing the Medical Administrative Service Examination. My passion was to serve the rural people. So I worked mostly in peripheral hospitals and never wanted to go abroad or work in Colombo maybe due to my dislike to amass wealth, a value instilled in me by my father,”
Dr. Arambegedera asserted.
“I did ward rounds in the morning as well as in the evening in every hospital I served and took notice of all the shortcomings in the wards and took measures to attend to them. I paid more attention to hygiene in the wards. There were instances where I personally cleaned toilets. I together with the staff repaired toilets and drains and cleaned the hospital surroundings. I never considered such work demeaning and my colleagues accused me of doing things not befitting the dignity of a doctor,” he further noted.
Dr. Arambegedara carried out his professional duties to the letter but was amenable to do anything outside his duty for the welfare of patients. The doctor took an additional shirt to hospital because after his morning ward rounds his shirt was drenched in sweat and needed another clean one for the evening rounds.
“During the civil war I served in Dambulla and when Dambulla was flooded I was still serving there to do my utmost to the patients.” He initiated eye surgery in an abandoned building in the Marawila Peripheral Hospital, under which about a 100 eye surgeries were carried out a month. He improved many hospitals he worked in with the assistance of the locals without waiting for government assistance.
“People still appreciate my past community work in rural hospitals,” he said, happily.
“I went beyond the call of duty to serve the people but not to seek popularity. I earnestly wanted to change the mindset of new colleagues to inculcate responsibility in them to serve the poor without stepping on their dignity. I am a rigid administrator to shirkers. That is because I am very concerned about the welfare of patients who seek our service.
“I should emphasize here that I receive the utmost support from my family – wife and daughter – which encourages me to serve the public better,” he remarked.
His parting remark was that he wished to see more of his kind follow in his footsteps.
(Translated by Ananda Elkaduwa)
Pics by Chamila Karunaratne