My friend - Mr Athula Withanage

My friend

March 11, 2024

My friend, Mr Athula Withanage, who graduated in Russia, suddenly passed away in London seven days ago. This brought tears to everyone’s eyes as he was a role model in lecturing as a medical teacher to other pupils because, in his lectures, he used many similes so that anyone could remember them.

Once, he was Clinical Director and lead Clinician in General Surgery at Withybush Hospital Haverfordwest, Wales. He remembered ‘putting back a seventeen-year-old boy, who was brought to the hospital with his arm in a bucket full of ice.’

The Surgeon can be described as a man with compounded ambitions and achievements from medicine, Surgery, literal activity to drama – with the scalpel in one hand and the pen in the other and blood pressure machine with the other hand and feet on the stage, as he started his pratic in drama in Ireland once he returned from Russia.

He was born in Gonagalapura, a southern town in Sri Lanka, and he received his primary education at Gonagalapura Mahavidyalaya. Later, he joined the Ananda College in Colombo. Before he left Sri Lanka to further his education in Russia, he graduated as a medical doctor; he was trained in Ireland. He worked in Ireland for ten years. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Scotland, Ireland, and England and a Fellow of The International College of Surgeons in General and Vascular Surgery.

In recognition of his services to the people of Pembrokeshire for 21 years, he first received the ‘Medical Unsung Hero’s Award’; soon after this, Lord Chamberlain invited him to Buckingham Palace for a Queen’s Garden party. With his general and vascular surgery mastery, he has performed countless successful operations. Recognizing his skills and successful surgical record, he was twice nominated for ‘The Silver Scalpel Award,’ sponsored by The Smith and Nephew Foundation. He finally received the award for Excellence in Surgical Training for the best surgical trainers in the UK.

After spending long hours in Surgery, the Surgeon had contrasting hobbies, such as writing in Sinhala and English drama. His first Sinhala novel was published in 1974 called ” Noriena and Wasantha”. He has also authored three English fiction books, a medical thriller called ‘Living Capsule’, Night of the Angel, and Flowers Dust and Stars. His Sinhala publication ‘Saman Mali Sandamali’ has been made into a Sinhala teledrama called ‘ Pahan Kanda. Recent publications include “Wound Care Management” and Evgeni Onegin (a novel in Verse by Alexander Pushkin translated from Russian to English).

He 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; Bard of the White Castle (1986); Wasir in Sinbad the Sailor (1985). In the Republic of Ireland, he 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 doctor role by learning the lines by writing in Sinhala.

His main aim as a Surgeon was to give back life to human beings who are critically ill. In such a capacity, the Surgeon were to become accustomed to his work, and soon it became routine, like in any other job. He has operated on thousands of patients over the past 40years after the General Surgery experience. He branched off to Vascular Surgery on obtaining his Fellowships from all three Royal Colleges of Surgeons and the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland. Fellowship from the International College of Surgeons and FRCS England were just awarded.

He has always looked at giving quality of life to a patient, irrespective of age. The oldest patient he operated on was 94 years of age. It was a touch-and-go case, but he took a chance and saved him. Later, the patient came to see him in the hospital to thank him and left a ‘thank you’ card with a vast wall chiming clock, which he still treasures. From General Surgery, he developed skills in Vascular Surgery. At Withybush, he reattached two near-amputations caused by trauma. He learned the technique while working at St Vincent’s Teaching Hospital in Dublin. The first arm he reattached was of a seven-year-old boy whose mum brought the arm in a bucket full of ice!

He was a tutor covering the whole of Pembrokeshire, attached to the Cardiff Minimally Invasive Institute. He trained in the post-graduate section at Withybush to prepare them for the MRCS Surgical examination with the help of his Surgical colleagues.

My friend was nominated for the Silver Scalpel Award for his services in Surgery and teaching. This special award is given to Surgeons based on their skilful record and is a nationwide competition. Even a nomination to such a prestigious award was an honour. He, from Withybush, was nominated. Local papers were happy that we put Spital on the map.

His unique qualities made him stand out as an excellent Surgical Trainer. He had always passed on theory and skills to the trainee and endeavoured to train them by taking each one through all the steps of any procedure.

Training was an extra responsibility for my friend, but it has always been voluntary and involved members of all units. His patience was paramount. He was never sarcastic or irritable but was always discreet and considerate. He never put any of his colleagues or trainees down or criticized them in front of patients or colleagues or the trainee’s absence. One must cultivate time to point out problems privately, and the advice should always be friendly and constructive.

He was a simple guy who had to work hard to achieve what he professionally earned. He may have achieved five Fellowships, but he was still the same old Athula, a simple, uncomplicated Surgeon doing a service he loved. Every success brings enormous pleasure, and every little complication brings heartache.

My friend Surgeon and his wife gave their three children, Triona, Shane and Dylan, the best education possible and made us two doctors and one lawyer within the family.

He dedicated his life to medicine, helping others, and teaching. His fondness for teaching was beyond imaginable. Throughout his life, he gave opportunities to doctors abroad to further progress in their medical profession here in the UK. He leaves behind my precious Nelum, three children, 6 beautiful grandchildren, and his younger brother Rahula Withanage.

Our father was a warrior. He never wanted to stop working, constantly educating himself and others; best of all, he was caring and compassionate.

He will always be in our hearts and watch down from above us. His legacy will continue forever. Cherish what you have, hug your loved ones, respect one another and always be kind.

Please share any interactions/memories you had with our father; he was a unique person who will be dearly missed.

Retired Lead Clinician Department of Surgery WGH. Hywel Dda NHS University Trust. Piyaseeli Withanage Charity Trust Surgeon. The Asian Sector & Consultant Wound Care Specialist (WGH & CETH) Consultant General & Laparoscopic Surgeon. Senior Lecturer in Surgery. Hon. Clinical Tutor Cardiff University. Faculty WIMAT, Cardiff, University of Wales. SAITM & KDU. Clinical Supervisor, Educational Supervisor & Examiner. Colombo East Teaching Hospital. / By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

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