By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando
Mother Lanka has given birth to many prodigies and given them a free education to prop them up to excel in wider fields, particularly in medicine. However, there were and are many students who are still unable to gain admission to universities to outshine in their chosen fields due to restrictions in our education system. Amidst such a dilemma, continuous protests, arguments and threatened strikes are seen and heard against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) , which is a private seat of learning, especially in the field of medicine, linked to Neville Fernando Russian Friendship Teaching Hospital in Malabe.
Despite Sri Lanka becoming a sovereign nation 69 years ago, there were many despairing students who were unable to enter the medical faculty at the University of Ceylon, but affluent parents sent their children to foreign countries for higher education. At one stage Russia was seen as an allure for such students, where Russian universities have groomed such 'ill-fated students' in Sri Lanka as professional engineers and specialists in the medical field.
Medicine is the science of healing by treatment and prevention of disease and the promotion of health. Writing is a medium of human communication representing language and emotion. Acting is an art performing fictional roles in plays, films, television, or on the theatre. When all these three features are put together (which is very rare indeed), the result would be adaptability. In this respect, Athula Withanage, fits the bill as one of those students who could not gain admission to the University of Ceylon and was sent to Russia for higher education where he mastered to hold the scalpel in one hand, a pen in the other and stand on his feet on the international stage.
Russian and UK experience
Athula Withanage had to learn Russian in his first year and qualified finally as a doctor after graduating from a Russian University. He received his postgraduate training in Ireland and worked for 10 years in Ireland and England. Seemingly, he rose up the ladder in his career after bagging a double FRCS, and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Scotland and Ireland. In 1980, he was absorbed by the Withybush General Hospital in Wales as a surgeon and he served continuously for over 20 years, latter part of which as the Clinical Director in Surgery prior to his retirement.
Later, he specialized in vascular surgery and was elected as a Fellow of The International College of Surgeons in General and Vascular Surgery. During his 21-year performance in general as well as vascular surgery, he was awarded the Medical Unsung Hero's Accolade in 1993. This was followed by his nomination thrice, by the Smith and Nephew Foundation, for the Silver Scalpel Award for excellence in the UK for surgery.
In the UK, doctors at senior level are referred to as Consultants. From the time they reach the level of Consultant Surgeons, it becomes customary to drop the word 'Dr.' title and identified them as 'Mr.' Hence, Mr. Athula Withanage worked as the Clinical Director and Lead Clinician in General Surgery at Withybush Hospital in Wales and became popular in the UK as a "surgeon who put back a severed limb of a seven-year-old boy who was brought to the hospital with his (severed) arm in a bucket full of ice, with the help of his team." He can certainly be described as a 'fellow' with compounded ambitions and achievements from medicine, surgery, literary activities, and drama.
After an exhausting day in the operating theatre, he always used to relax by engaging in contrasting hobbies such as writing to take his mind away from surgery. Consequently, he published English fictions such as ‘Night of the Angel’ and ‘Flowers Dust and Stars’ and ‘Noriena’; Wasantha, Saman Mali Sandamali in Sinhala. Seemingly, he was recognized in the UK as the first medical doctor to become a novelist in publishing a medical thriller, The Living Capsule (ISBN 0 7212 5715 9) in the UK, under the pseudonym (Arthur Withanage!). Immediately after the publication of the medical thriller by the Regency Press in London and New York, it zoomed into the top ten of the 'thriller category of book sales' in the UK.
The Living Capsule was his first English novel-cum medical thriller. In this fiction, the author combines murder, romance, bribery, and medical ethics surrounding 'unauthorized' experiments on human beings. He takes the reader through an imaginary journey along intricate hospital and surgical routine into the operating theatre and up to the mortuary.
In the plot, a hospital registrar, Robert Grant is a surgeon; his colleague the senior house officer Dr. Peter Miller, who worked at the same hospital, becomes suspicious followed by a series of sinister incidents at the hospital. Why did the Indian Anesthetist Dr. Patel commit suicide by hanging from a rope in his room? There were theories and assumptions to believe that being an anesthetist he could easily have taken a lethal dose of morphine instead! Was he then killed? Was it a coincidence too, that even the hospital Biochemist was found dead? Was it another homicide? How did a hand of a ‘certified’ dead body in the mortuary keep hanging out to be exposed? Was the night watcher of the mortuary conspiring to blackmail, or was he after a bribe? All these becomes unsolved hiccups.
Amidst all such mysterious occurrences Dr. Miller becomes romantically involved with attractive Sarah Roberts, another doctor in the same hospital. He was ignorant of her love affair with another Registrar John Waterworth. Highlighting the type of setbacks in romantic relationships, the author takes the reader through a journey on a complex, sensational, confused and emotional situations exposing human weaknesses among Peter Miller, Sara Roberts, and John Waterworth that finally ends up with the tragic death of John Waterworth after becoming paralyzed. Amidst such whirlpools, heartburns, tears, and perplexity, Sara Roberts and Peter Miller find happiness by getting together in an interminable union.
Although the fiction is centred on creativity and inspiration, yet it deals with a serious medical opinion to examine whether the human brain can be made to survive death by keeping alive of 'near-death' patients, and to examine the possibility of resuscitating even the momentarily dead. Dr. Robert Grant attempts to achieve this with a specially formulated restorative capsule (his invention) by implanting it through a hole in the skull purely to keep the brain functioning for several hours, in case of brain death, instead of the 2-3 minutes allowed for surgeons to work on, under normal circumstances. Throughout his experiments and research, Registrar Robert Grant goes through several mishaps on forbidden tests and experiments on dogs and gets further embroiled in a homicidal plot when a mafia boss, who visits from the USA, wants to monopolise his secret formula contained in the newly invented capsule.
A controversy exists in real life within the medical profession as to when a person should be declared dead. The therapeutic knowledge so far is insufficient about brain death. In such a backdrop, the author's imaginary assumption to keep the brain cells in a chemical surrounding for two to three hours may sound like bizarre medical technology, which still belongs in the realms of science fiction, but who knows, that might become a reality in the future.
The new idea of resuscitating is very much likely to become debatable, as the contemporary medical ethics will become a wedge between the public and doctors in using patients as guinea pigs. Medical ethics state that even to resuscitate patients, who have no chance of a decent life, would be cruel, because patients trust doctors and they place implicit faith and leave their lives in the hands of surgeons, which enforces a responsibility that has to be taken quite seriously.
As a young man, Athula Withanage ventured into English drama and became a member of the Claberston Players Group in the UK and diversified and proved his latent talents by appearing in the play Dick Whittington as Sultan of Barberry (1984); Bard of the Whitsun Castle (1986); Wasir in Sinbad the Sailor (1985). In the Republic of Ireland, Athula became the first ever Asian to take part in the Irish play, Citi, which won the first prize at the 'All Ireland Festival'. He played the role of a doctor by learning Irish lines by writing in Sinhala.
At the initial stages of construction of the Russia Friendship Teaching Hospital in Malabe, Athula Withanage was spending some time in Sri Lanka on a holiday when Dr. Neville Fernando invited him to conduct a lecture at the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH). Overwhelmed by his discourse, Dr. Neville Fernando made a request to Withanage to join the NFTH staff. As he had by then retired from the UK NHS Service, he accepted the offer and extended a helping hand in the overall operational activities of the NFTH, particularly in modifications to the operating theaters and recommending the sophisticated, precise surgical machinery and hospital equipment from the UK, to upgrade the new hospital to an international standard.
In Sri Lanka, Athula Withanage acts as the Chief General Surgeon at the NFTH and Senior Lecturer in General Surgery at SAITM. In order to assist the low-income groups, Athula Withanage treats poor patients at the NFTH, from his own established family trust under his mother's name, 'Piyaseeli Withanage Service Trust', which is mainly funded by the family foundation, known as the 'Scepter Group', headed by Rayo Withanage (CEO).
As a Lead Clinician (Rtd.) in General Surgery – Hywel Dda NHS University Trust, and Faculty Member WIMAT Cardiff University, he is kept busy when he is in the UK in demonstrating and training post graduate doctors on Laparoscopy, which is a modern type of surgery by using a thin, lighted tube put through an incision in the belly to look at the abdominal organs or the female pelvic organs to detect cysts, adhesions, fibroids, and infection.