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June 26, 2018

A Surgeon by Profession and a Nature Lover at Heart

Browns Hospitals

A consultant surgeon at Browns Hospitals Ragama Dr. Newton Jayawardana set off time from his busy schedule to share with us his experiences and knowledge as a Doctor and his passion for nature and wildlife.

Consultant Surgeons then and now.

Back in the old days, there weren’t many subspecialties in the medical profession. Most of us were trained to cater to and handle a variety of surgery types and consultations. We basically had a hands-on-deck approach to the needs of our patients. More or less like being a Jack of all Trades.

When I started life as a surgeon in Matara, we didn’t have any specialised surgeons as a Vascular or an Orthopaedic Surgeon or a Gastroenterologist. I for one, had to be responsible for and tackle the day to day medical and surgical needs of the patients. I also like to perform Orthopaedic, Neurosurgical, Pediatric and other specialised surgeries as well.

Dealing with emergency cases was a challenge. Transporting a patient from Matara to Colombo National hospital, it would take at-least 4 hours. And all roads were not tarred and paved as they are now and as a result transporting a patient could bring more harm than good.

These type of patients needed immediate medical attention and I was fortunate to have been able to use my expertise to save people.

However, as time went by and a lot of developments and medical breakthroughs were taking place locally and internationally, Doctors and Surgeons are better equipped to serve our patients.

A significant change that occurred in my career is that with the evolution of subspecialties, the areas of expertise that were primarily dependent on me was gradually beginning to lessen. In my practice now, I’d rather hand over certain surgeries to a more specialised pair of hands. After all, it is the patients’ well-being that should be our sole objective and goal.

My humble beginnings

I first began my career in the early 1980s as a medical officer at the Base hospital Kuliyapitiya. There was a huge dearth of Doctors in Sri Lanka at the time. A few Burmese Doctors came down to assist with this lack of medical resource. Working with the Burmese Doctors was often a task due to the language barrier. Both us, Doctors and patients found it hard to communicate effectively. Whilst it was challenging, it at the same time a great asset in our quest in serving the nation.

After about 5 years of service in Kuliyapitiya, I went on to take up Postgraduate studies. We didn’t have the luxury of any grants or any financial assistance to excel in our field and studies at the time. All had to be achieved with one’s own unstinted hard work and dedication.

Nevertheless we were passionate and motivated and most of all constantly inspired to serve the country and its people. In the simple life we lived back then, us Doctors were exposed to many little blessings in life. I remember the time I would go to the flea market; popularly known in Sri Lanka as the ‘Pola’. The vendors would rush to fill up my market bag with fresh vegetables and other goods as they didn’t see it fit for a good Doctor to walk about in the market. Paying them for their services was a humbling experience as they would refuse to take any money from you.

It’s these little pleasures and blessings that make your life worth-while and give you a sense of pride and honour of the services and sacrifices you do as a Doctor. It is sad and unfortunate that Medical Professionals of today don’t and probably will never get to experience such humbling joy.

My skills to the test

The longest surgery I was involved here in Sri Lanka was assisting Chief Surgeon Dr. Chester Rathnatunga. The patient had a damaged major blood vessel due to an infection and it needed to be replaced with a prosthetic graft. The surgery took place at the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital. Surgery commenced at 8:00 a.m. and concluded at 7:30 p.m. It was a successful surgery.

What I truly live for

Other than being a Surgeon, I am an avid nature lover. I am a life member of the Wildlife and Nature Protective Society and also the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka at the Colombo University headed by world renowned Ornithologist Prof. Sarath Kotagama.

I devote all my free time working with these associations and also invest in my personal passions to save and protect the nature and wildlife of Sri Lanka.

Giving you an example of how deep my love for nature goes, an endemic frog in Sri Lanka was named after me. It goes as Newton Jayawardene’s shrub frog (Pseudophilautus newtonjayawardanei). And I was very fortunate to catch a glimpse of all rare birds of Sri Lanka. It took years of constant trips to the jungle and patiently waiting; lying down on the mud or grass with all our camera equipment.

On the other hand, one does not necessarily need to go to a forest or jungle to witness beautiful fauna. You can do this in your own back yard; watching out for beautiful birds.

Other than nature, I also like listening to classical music, swimming, and photography.

Expanding my horizons

I travelled to UK for further training and studies. I was exposed novel medical surgeries such as Endoscopic and Laparoscopic surgeries.

During my initial visit to the UK, I followed various courses and lectures and conferences conducted by the Natural History Museum in the UK, learning much about the Nature and Wild Life. I also learned and mastered photography.

Exploring my career options, whilst in the UK, I have to share with you of this one particular incident where I had to face a panel of 28 experts interviewing me.

The process was painstakingly stressful and required a lot of tact and patience from my side. The questioning almost felt like I was being bullied or harassed.

My knowledge and experience was thoroughly tested as they wanted to make sure everything I brought to the table was true and authentic. The exposure and experience gained in the UK came in handy in dealing with this panel of 28.

Each of them took turns and every little detail on my CV was questioned and probed.

My life membership of the Wild life Nature Protection Security (WNPS) was questioned in a much ridiculous manner. I was even challenged on my personal passions; my love for nature. My answer to this question worked in my favour, as the WNPS that I was a part of was established by some of the respected British veterans in Sri Lanka. What initially started off as a group that killed animals for sport, later turned out to be an association that protected animals and wildlife. Dr. Spittle was instrumental in starting this society. He made the others see wildlife through his eyes; to protect our animals and not kill them for sport. He was one of the great surgeons of our country and did an enormous service to our country and has written many books in his time. I could and was prepared to talk to them in length about Dr. Spittle.

The interview ended with the last person on the panel, saying ‘No further questions’.