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 Post subject: Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne — A Portrait of Greatness
 Post Posted: Thu Jun 30, 2005 1:53 am 
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Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne — A Portrait of Greatness

The Island / 30JUNE2005


"We had a very happy married life. Kami was the perfect wife and an excellent mother. She knew exactly how to bring up our children. She often said: ‘I’ll give our children the freedom to develop, but I‘ll always be there for them.’ And so she was — a very caring, loving mother, but unobtrusive."

That was Dr. Michael Abeyratne reminiscing the day after Her Excellency the President’s initiated event to commemorate the life and work of the late Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne at the BMICH on Wednesday, 22 June. The event also saw the launching of a high level national dialogue on HIV/ AIDS.

The Commemorative Event

The President invited people to the event which included a documentary on Kamalika’s work, a presentation by Mr. Nimal Siripala de Silva, Minister of Health, and addresses by Dr. B. J. C. Perera and Sherman de Rose, Convener AIDS coalition Sri Lanka. The highlight of the evening was the addresses by the President and former Prime Minister of India, Shri Inder Kumar Gujral. The programme thus far was magnificent, one could say. Then came the touching part of the evening when a national award was posthumously presented by the President to Dr. Abeyratne. The vote of thanks was emotional since Sunethra Bandaranaike, Chairperson of APLF who proposed it, had been a good friend of Kamalika’s and spoke as a bereaved friend. Continuing the work Kamalika was involved in for the last eight years or so of her life, a National Commitment toward HIV/AIDS prevention was declared.

This event, organized by the Office of the President in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS (APLF), warmed the hearts of all who knew Kamalika . It was sad, yet gratifying to her husband and family and to all those who admired this great woman to know her greatness was recognized; to know that without once seeking in the slightest measure prominence or praise, Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne received them in full measure.

The President is to be admired for lending her name to such a commemorative event and more, for attending the ceremony in spite of her extra busy schedule these days. A comment of this nature by Kamalika’s daughter had brought the immediate response from CBK: "But I had to be present today. Some things have to be done."

It is seldom, let’s admit it, that an excellent worker in his/her field; a person who has rendered real service to people and who never ever sought the limelight is so honoured. Hence the satisfaction one feels. The satisfaction however, grapples with the feeling of deep regret that Kamalika had to die too early in life all because of a freak accident, a medical mistake that should never ever have happened.

Medical Lineage

Both Drs. Michael and Kamalika Abeyratne have medical ‘histories’. We all know of Dr. L. O. Abeyratne and Dr. Augusta Abeyratne and their work in pediatrics. Dr. Kamalika’s father was the well known Professor George Wickremasuriya who is the only Sri Lankan to have won a prestigious international prize for medicine. His work so commended was the discovery that the malaria parasite resides in a mother’s umbilical cord and is transferred to the unborn child and is in its blood at birth.

Kamalika’s family had a wonderfully happy life with holidays in Nuwara Eliya and Hambantota. Her imagination conjured up visiting fairies and elves, and having heard they liked omelette, she would place her breakfast egg on a garden toadstool, only to be eaten by her brother, Sena. Kamalika, however, was mighty pleased imagining the little creatures nibbling her sacrificed tidbit.

Unfortunately Prof. Wickremasuriya died young and thus, as Kamalika’s sister said, their mother in her 30s and the children had to move from their palatial Ward Place home to a smaller house and did suffer privation of sorts. "Kamalika was the bright spark in the family and so naturally she took to medicine."

A Blessed Marriage

"On 13th August this year we would have celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary and even more importantly, our half century of having known each other." Dr. Michael Abeyratne went on to explain himself." We met as batch mates in the medical college and I was immediately attracted to Kami, by her vivacity, her being such a lively person. She was ever the cheerful soul." Soon after completing their medical studies they were married and worked in Gampaha and then in Anuradhapura, the latter station specially auspicious to Kamalika since it was here that her father had done his seminal research on malaria, which Kamalika continued.

They had three of their four children while in Anuradhapura. The elder daughter, Aruni, attended the Balika Vidyalaya while Nilu went to the Convent. They found that Aruni was doing extra excellent work in school. Their parental suspicions were justified. The dosthara none’s kid was given high marks whatever work she produced! Nilu hated food so she spun the tale that the Convent Mothers gave the children breakfast. Thanking the nuns for their extra care of their fold, the parents found to their consternation that this daughter had gone hungry till break time each school day!

Later they moved to Colombo. What is most outstanding in their work is that they spent their entire time with the patients in hospital. While most other specialist doctors were engaged in private practice, the Drs. Abeyratne were spending their working hours in their respective hospitals giving service to their patients, particularly the poor. It was only when the children were coming on to university education that the two doctors felt the need to earn more than their government salaries. And so was hung a small board with their names and qualifications by the side of their house, which had streams of cars parked all along Fifth Lane, Kollupitiya. They were much sought after, but they never made money as some do. Patients who seemed unable to afford the small fee they charged were treated free and assisted to enter hospital. Never were they very rich.

Just as the young were gone or about to leave the parental home to lead their own adult lives, tragedy struck the Abeyratne family. "Kami was severely injured, her lungs were lacerated and her leg bones fractured but she took our son to the Ambalangoda hospital in a three wheeler. I was concussed. Kami was beginning to find it difficult to breathe so I wanted us transferred to Colombo. But the doctor in Ambalangoda said he had to send us to Karapitiya. Just to Karapitiya. And Kami was getting worse by the minute. At Karapitiya hospital we were happy to find the surgeon on duty was a star pupil of mine. His quick intervention saved her life. Equipment was lacking. Mrs. Bandaranaike it was who ordered a helicopter to bring us to Colombo. But the weather was too treacherous for the helicopter to land so we had to move Kami to the Koggala airstrip to a waiting plane."

Thus started their trauma and travail. The suffering undergone by the family was immeasurable, the pain of mind intense. All who knew them were shocked that a fate of this magnitude could come to such a good person. Here she was driving to all parts of the country with Michael in their vehicle giving free service at medical clinics and this had to happen. Of course we Buddhists realize it is karma, and Kamalika too came to understand that some action in a previous life was so strong it negated all the good she had done, temporarily.

The fact that contaminated blood had been transfused was bad enough. What was worse was the treatment given her early on in her illness. The press reporters were like dogs straining at the leash to break the news of her illness and hospital staff fled from her. Nursing homes refused to admit her. It was only Asiri at the beginning that took her in when she needed hospital care, and later Oasis. We Sri Lankans were so ignorant, and yes, cussed at the time about this new illness that was afflicting man. Impossible to believe but true: a colleague maliciously gossiped about Kamalika and seemed to like to mention loud and clear that she was stricken. One friend who heard her just before her departure to England phoned Michael from London and good came of it, since Kamalika was admitted to a hospital in London and improved remarkably, with this friend’s help.

Strength of Character

Kamalika’s spirit was truly indomitable. As Michael said, "Kami was stubborn and grew more stubborn as the years went by. This stood her in good stead. She was stubborn about her illness, never giving up"

Any lesser being, any mere mortal would have moaned and groaned about her bad luck, regretted the terribly unfortunate accident and fallen into seclusion and depression. Of course Michael, ever her loving husband, friend and care-giver, did not allow this. But Kamalika too was made of sterner stuff. She knew so wisely that one needs to turn one’s disadvantages to advantages and that life had to be lived as fully as possibly, in the Dhamma, in service to others, for the sake of family. So with true grit she did not succumb to her illnesses until the very last. She lived beyond the expected years and did much more than one would expect of her, involving herself with work to benefit other sufferers.

Service to Others

I mentioned earlier that it was only late in life the two doctors got down to private practice. When retired they meant to devote themselves to social service. But karma decreed otherwise. Kamalika bided her time and the moment she was better she immersed herself in HIV/AIDS awareness creation.

One incident to illustrate her dedication to healing. A young mother brought her daughter to me with persistent pain in her stomach, with the request I get medical help. Our GP was not working that day and no other doctor could I think of. I could not send mother and suffering child to a nursing home either, since I always went to the GP. I rang Kamalika’s sister and, explaining the situation, asked her whether Kamalika would see her. Kamalika had just returned home from hospital. In a couple of minutes we were asked to come over and Kamalika examined the child thoroughly and prescribed a drug which cured her. Such was her generosity and concern for the sick.

A True Buddhist

"When she was very ill, one thing she asked for was pirit, which I chanted to her. Kami would place her palms and trembling fingers together, lifted in prayer, seeking the peace of the Buddha word," said Indrani, Kamalika’s sister.

Her religion was a solace to her. Belief in karma would have helped her come to terms with this illness thrust on her by unforgivably careless medical practice. She did come to terms with it though it would have been doubly difficult for so alive a person as Kamalika to become more and more incapacitated.

We were together at a meditation retreat when Kamalika told us how she had done all she could for her eldest daughter who at 26 and a final year medical student fell ill with cancer. The two of them were in London while Michael had to return to be in Colombo with the other kids. "I did all I could for Aruni, never leaving her side. That last day I arranged for her to speak to Thathi and others on the phone and then she said it was time for her to give up. She died peacefully. I returned to the friend’s place I was staying at and asked for a cup of coffee. I told her that Aruni had died and that I would have a bath and sleep. My friend was surprised at my lack of tears. But I had done all I could for my child. Now I needed some rest"

We were stunned by the practicality of her actions and appreciated how very Buddhistic she had been. This was a lesson Kamalika taught me which I will never forget and which I try to put into practice. There is a time to live and a time to die and when a loved one dies there is no need for loud moaning and a show of bereavement. One’s sorrow is within oneself, but the living have to go on living so it’s best they look to themselves, as soon as possible.

We regret Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne’s untimely and very unfortunate death; we sorrow in sympathy with her family; but what remains is the wonderful picture of a Sri Lankan woman who shone like a beacon when she lived and now shines even stronger with the example she set us. Hers was a truly great life of love of humanity and care for all human beings, a life lived with true Buddhist conviction, taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

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