Posted on February 13th, 2014

Dr.Tilak Fernando

The Sri Lankan whom I met in London during early 1990s could be introduced as a medical man with compounded ambitions, talents and achievements from medicine, surgery, literal activity to drama – I have always referred to him as someone with “scalpel in one hand, pen in the other and feet on stage floor boards”!

Mr. Athula Withanage who was attached to the NHS in the UK, as a Consultant Surgeon (Surgeons in England are addressed as Mr. and not Dr), was born in South of Sri Lanka. He was educated at a Maha Vidyalaya and Ananda College and subsequently obtained his MBBS in the UK and was trained in Ireland.

He advanced to the position of a surgeon in 1970 and worked in Eire for 10 years before moving to Wales in 1980, worked throughout as the Clinical Directorand Lead Clinician in General Surgery at Withybush Hospital Haverford West until his retirement recently. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Scotland, Ireland, England, and also a Fellow of the International College of Surgeons in General and Vascular Surgery.

Surgeons at Edna Hospital

Irish and Sinhala

Silver Scalpel Award in the UK is a rare and prestigious honour offered to surgeons on their skilful record. Even to be nominated to such a position is considered as a high-status glory. In this regard Athula Withanage was nominated twice in the UK for both surgery and teaching; in 1991 out of 870 contesting surgeons from all over the UK, Mr. Brian l Rees, Consultant Surgeon, and Withanage were the only nominees picked up from Wales which placed Withybush Hospital on the UK map.

Athula has naturally been born with a multitude of talents. As a young student in England he ventured into English drama and became a member of the Cluberston Players Group in the UK, diversified and proved his latent talents by appearing in the play Dick Whittington as Sultan of Barberry (1984); Bard of the Whisten Castle (1986) and Wasir in Sinbad the Sailor (1985). In the Republic of Ireland, he created a record being the first ever Asian to take part in the Irish play ‘Citi’, which won the first prize at the ‘All Ireland Festival’, where he played the role of a doctor by learning Irish lines by writing in Sinhala!

Athula Withanage

In addition to surgery and stage performances, Athula has a contrasting hobby of writing Sinhala and English fiction. His first publication came out as a Sinhala novel, Noriena and Wasanthye in 1974, which was criticised by two prominent Sri Lankan literal critics by comparing the story line to ‘a river beautifully flowing from Ireland and getting imprecise when it touches on Sri Lanka’. That made Athula to re-write another Sinhala fiction concentrating purely on the much criticised ‘Sri Lankan aspect’ and called it Samanmali, Sandamali, which was later adapted to a Sinhala teledrama by a producer calling it Pahan Kanda. His Sinhala novel fiction ‘Ma hada tula jeevathvana obata’ is an English translation of ‘The one who lives in my heart’. This probably qualifies as the only fiction published in both languages by the same author!

English medical thriller ‘living capsule’ which hit the top ten of medical thriller series sales in the UK was based on an imaginary surgeon’s invention of a ‘special capsule’ which extended the time factor up to 10 minutes, prior to brain damage, where a surgeon could have a breathing space to try and save life. His other English fictions include Night of the Angel and Flowers Dust and Stars.

Hospital drama in the dark

His preliminary medical experience as a Junior House Officer at Barrington’s Hospital & City of Limerick Infirmary had been a hairy experience. ‘One evening a female patient with a severe lung condition had been admitted where her family demanded a separate room for her.

In the evening young Athula did rounds with a ward sister and ‘upon entering the patient’s room, on the second floor, found an empty bed, oxygen mask hanging beside while oxygen still running out of it’. He knelt under the bed to see whether the patient was hiding, but in the meanwhile a nurse went up to the window and started screaming! ‘The patient had dived out of the building into a dark alleyway between deep walls of two buildings. A flashed torch light showed the patient lying down on the floor motionless’.

The ‘inexperienced’ young house officer did not know what to do! Next moment, overcome by human reaction, he started climbing down on a drain pipe carrying an emergency kit to save the patient. Things became worse when the down pipe undulated from wall to wall with Athula hanging on to it while the nurses screamed in a panic! In a jiffy, the old pipe gave way and collapsed but fortunately it moved on to the opposite wall and got stuck with Athula hanging on to it, just three feet above where the crashed patient lied. ‘Patient was dead already with parts of her brain scattered all over’. Athula was sad but thought he had done his duty by the patient even by taking chances with on his own life!

‘While the hospital staff awaited the arrival of the fire brigade, an elderly physician (Dr. Crowe) who was on the first floor, opened the X ray room door, came on the wooden floor of the 2nd level of the building and stretched his hand to pull young Athula out of the danger. Unfortunately the fragile old floor boards collapsed and Dr. Crowe got stuck in-between the broken floor boards, making it a complete drama where there were two medical casualties and one dead! Finally the fire brigade arrived and winched Athula and the dead body out of the alleyway and released Dr. Crowe by cutting through the floor boards of the 2nd floor.


His main aim as a surgeon has been to give back life to human beings who are critically ill. Starting from ‘putting back a severed limb of a seven year old boy who was brought to the hospital with his arm in a bucket full of ice’ he has performed thousands of operations on patients over the past 30 years.

Subsequently he branched off from general to Vascular Surgery which is a major surgical treatment mainly on the gall bladder. The operations are done using tiny cuts, telescopes and long operating tools introduced through tiny “key holes”. In this set up, ‘virtually the operating field view is available on TV screens and the surgeon’s team is able to see whether if anything is going wrong. In such circumstances immediately it can be detected’, but, of course, the final decision depends on the responsible specialist.

He, as a surgeon, has always looked at giving the quality of life to a patient, irrespective of the age factor. “It was the normal procedure to open and just close” on a 78 year old patient with advanced cancer on whom he had done different surgery before but his intention was to remove the bulk of the tumor and with chemo therapy to give the patient a chance to live. His colleagues thought he was ‘out of his mind’. Three months after the operation the patient saw Athula Withanage with a huge chiming clock with a ‘thank you card’ which read: “Doctor you gave me life and I am giving you the time”, which could be interpreted as the Surgeon is giving life and, in return, the patient giving his blessings to the surgeon to carry on with surgery for many years to come! The Patient lived after the operation for another year before dying!

He believes in the theory that doctor or a surgeon should spend more time in a discussion with a patient to fully understand the problems and to reassure the patient by getting to the bottom of a patient’s illness and/or anxiety. This he has been trying to ingrain in the minds of all his students (including FRCS) as an instructor in the UK.

His simplicity and firm principles of not being inclined to make money out of the suffering patients at times can be misunderstood in Sri Lanka. He is a simple guy, without any narcissism, yet being so experienced and made a name for himself in the UK as a surgeon who was twice nominated to the Gold Scalpel award!

He is now among Sri Lankans to give his talent, experience and time to anyone who needs his advice or services.

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