Life Abroad – Part 16: The Flutter Under The Palm
Posted on February 22nd, 2013

Dr. Tilak Fernando

Athula Withanage , MD FRCS, is one of the sons Mother Lanka has produced, but was unable to make use of his services until he retired. He was attached to Withybush Haverfordwest, Hospital in Wales as the Clinical Director/Lead Technician for over 20 years . I met him in London in 2005.

Once he and his team managed to put back a dethatched limb successfully of a seven year old boy who was brought to the hospital with his arm in a bucket of ice.


Young Athyula Withanage

Versatility

He is a versatile character with talents not confined to surgery alone. Once in Ireland he acted in a stage play (Citi) by writing down his dialogues in Sinhala; published an English medical thriller called “ƒ”¹…”within a capsule’ and numerous Sinhala novels, one which was made into a teledrama as Pahan Kanda. Every time I had the occasion to write about him from London I always referred to him as “ƒ”¹…”a medical man with the scalpel in one hand and the pen in the other’!

Mid air drama

On January 30, 2013, SriLankan flight UL 504 took off at 21 hours from London Heathrow Airport with a full complement of passengers including a small number of foreign doctors.

Suddenly an emergency situation occurred when a tourist from Holland collapsed in mid air. Panicked air hostess’s voice suddenly thundered over the intercom speakers: “Any doctors or paramedics here, please Sir, we desperately need assistance”.

Three or four foreign doctors seated at the rear end of the fuselage reigned total silence, possibly being concerned about Medical Defence issues, but Athula Withanage immediately sprung up from his seat and followed the cabin crew to the point of concern.

The female passenger had turned ash in colour and sweating profusely. Athula could not feel any pulse either! In his next move he politely asked permission from the distraught husband to attend to her serious condition. Oxygen tank and mask were called and Athula Withanage immediately went into action in true ATLS (Advanced Trauma and Life Support) tradition and saved her life to the delight of the crew and the passengers.

Royal treatment

The Sri Lankan surgeon was subjected to a right royal treatment of applause from all aboard in the fearsome flight. As a gesture of appreciation SriLankan Airlines sent him an official note stating:


Athula Withanage relaxing after an operation

“It is with gratitude we note the professional assistance volunteered in caring a passenger who required your assistance on board our flight……” Signed. Dr (Mrs. Anomi Jayasinghe, Airline’s Medical Officer and the Pilot in Command UL 504 30 Jan 2013).

His response: “I am just a surgeon, no drugs, no canulas or drips; I don’t even carry a knife of course, just thank God, ATLS and the four cabin crew so willingly helped me to save her life”.

Later he told me: “There is nothing more delightful for me as a doctor on this earth than to feel someone’s heart refilled with blood beating once again under my own palm allowing the person to re-enter the world. No accolades are required as it is a rewarding humble experience which sinks to my soul and remains with me for the rest of my life”.

“There are no monitors especially in mid air or by the side of the road except my palm pulse comes later. It happened to me three times over four decades. Yes, I still remember the feeling under my palm and not their pulses. It was truly wonderful, the flutter under my palm”.

The irony was that no one in the flight would have realised that this unassuming passenger was in fact an Advanced Trauma and Life Support Provider with the Latest Certificate from USA ( 2011).

Audience with HM Queen Elizabeth II

In the early 1980s he organised the first FRCS Training Academic Programme at Withybush Hospital and taught surgical skills to all surgical trainees to develop the state-of-the-art New Surgical Skills. As an appreciation of such a gesture he was thrice nominated for the prestigious Silver Scalpel Award in the UK for excellent surgical skills training as the Best Trainer of the year putting Withybush General Hospital on the UK map! It is on record that out of 700 consultants only Athula Withanage and Brian Reef were chosen for this prestigious Award in the UK.

In 1990 he won the ABI UK Bronze Accolade for raising the standards of education of junior doctors. In 1991 he was named as the “ƒ”¹…”Unsung Hero’ of the National Health Service. Following his “ƒ”¹…”unsung hero’ accolade HM Queen Elizabeth II extended an invitation to Athula Withanage for an audience with her at Buckingham Palace.

In 2008 The Pembrokeshire NHS Trust awarded him the first prize for Best Mentor and Clinical Leader chosen out of 1,000 clinicians and healthcare workers all over Wales.

In 2009 Athula Withanage won the first prize in the “Saving Thousand Lives Campaign” in the National Health Service in the UK; In 2010 Hywel Dda NHS Trust awarded him the same accolade. This was regarded as a rare achievement as no one has ever won this award in two consecutive years which confirms that Athula Withanage was one of the best Mentors and Clinical Leaders in the UK.

At the Surgical Specialty Registrar level he has trained and developed surgical skills in Laparoscopic Biliary Surgery and careers of many to achieve MRCS and FRCS status.

He was appointed as the Skills Trainer (at WIMAT -Welsh Minimal Access Therapy Unit) to teach Basic Surgical Skills for The Royal College of England.

The Faculty of Medicine of the University of Wales in recognition of his work with Medical Students from the UK and abroad appointed him as the Honorary Clinical Tutor in General Surgery which helped to attract over 500 overseas Graduates to Pembrokeshire as clinical attachments to adapt to UK practice.

The PLAB result from Withybush Haverfordwest Hospital has always been 100 percent.

Complex surgical procedures on Laprascopic Cholecystectomy such as Fast Track Biopsy Service via the Pre-admission service, Proactive Escalation Process for Non-Urgent Cancer Patients to achieve National Cancer Treatment Targets which he introduced to the Day Hospital has been commended and accepted by the NHS Trust and was contributed to the NHS Awards in 2010

Ian R Martin, BSc.MB.BS.FRCR, Head of the Post Graduate Organiser at Withybush General Hospital, has summed up Athula Withanage’s assessment in one paragraph thus:

“I miss his delightful manner and clinical acumen. I already miss his excellent teaching and training skills and the mentorship and leadership he has shown towards young academics at Withybush. I wish him well in his new career in Medical Education and have no doubt with his vast clinical as well as teaching experience he will be an asset to any medical institution anywhere in the World”.

D.J.O’Regan FRCS, has described him as an “Excellent Teacher leaving a legacy”.

Dr.Withanage has donated Rs 5.2 million worth of surgical instruments (out of his personal funds) which include modern Laparoscopic sets, Vascular and other surgical instruments and appliances to the New Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital in Malabe with a request to distribute Colostomy appliances (bags) to cancer patients FREE OF CHARGE AT THIS HOSPITAL, which will be available from February 28, 2013. This was in memory of his parents, Paul de Silva Withanage and Piyaselee Kanaheraarchchi from Gonagalapura, Induruwa.

Dr. Athula Withanage has always been concerned with post-care of patients by patients’ own relatives as well as the society. Out of a personal early life experience as a young doctor a thought process has prompted him to write his latest book called “The One Who Lives in my Heart” which has been published in the English language as well as in Sinhala.

Sri Lanka should be thankful that even at the eleventh hour a patriotic son has returned to his roots to serve his mother country, expecting no gains or glory but to give his services and experience to young and budding Sri Lankan medical men who want to be caring doctors.

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