A doctor who cared | Daily News

A doctor who cared

Nanneriya villagers saddened by Dr. Niranjali’s transfer:

For a very long time, Sri Lanka has been categorised as a country on the road to being developed. In the journey towards reaching ‘developed’ status, the island continues to face grave challenges. Many of the country’s citizens still find it difficult to get access to clean drinking water. In other places, people receive step-motherly treatment, beaten by drought and trapped in the human–elephant conflict. When the North and the South are fast developing, the middle is often ignored. Many in these areas have no steady income and live in harsh circumstances.

This story comes from the village of Nanneriya, in the Galgamuwa Divisional Secretariat in Kurunegala. It is of a doctor who faced adversity with a smile and took on the challenge of turning around a small hospital into hope for a whole village.

Doctors these days do not have the best of reputations. Their names have come to be attached more with trade union action rather than service. But in Nanneriya, one doctor stands above all in her capacity to serve the people who need it the most. To serve when no one else would.

Dr. Niranjali Siriwardena has worked for the past few years at the Nanneriya Divisional Hospital, winning the hearts of not only those in the village, but also those in the surrounding villages.

Nanneriya Divisional Hospital

The Nanneriya Divisional Hospital was started in 1938 and, according to the Hospital Development Committee Vice President M.W.P. Somasiri, it was first started as a maternity clinic.

“In 1952, an OPD section was established and people could come to see a doctor and get medicine. Since then, a large number of doctors have worked at this hospital. But we have never had a doctor like her,” he said.

The hospital in general requires three doctors to function, but since its inception, it has had trouble in attracting and keeping doctors who would like to work in such a remote and difficult area.

Dr. Siriwardena, who first came to Nanneriya Hospital in April 2014, found herself thrown into the deep end. This was her first posting after graduation and thus she had to learn fast to survive and thrive in Nanneriya.

A year after she arrived, her colleague, another doctor, was transferred out and for the last three years she has been running the hospital all on her own. She was the only doctor available.

“She does the work of three doctors,” said Somasiri. “Many doctors before her complained that they would only work if there are at least two doctors in the hospital. She did not complain, but took over the whole hospital and ran it. She is very efficient, she comes to work at 7 am and sits in that chair and treats patients until 5pm or 6pm. She talks to them and to be honest, she provides a service above and beyond her role.”

The good doctor

Sujeewa Priyadarshani, a resident in Nanneriya, has built a close relationship with the resident doctor.

“We have treated her like part of our own families,” she said. “She is very pleasant and talks nicely to us. Though this was her first posting, she did not immediately leave us saying it was a difficult place to work in. Many doctors before her left soon after they arrived because they considered it too difficult to work here. She is now leaving us. we are very sad about it.”

Dr. Siriwardena will leave Nanneriya this week as her time there has come to an end and she has been transferred to another area.

“Some patients, when they finally meet the doctor after having spent a long time in the queue, immediately feel better once they speak to her. I think she has some power to cure people because after having spoken to her, at times we forget why we came to see the doctor in the first place.”

Priyadarshani also observed that around 350-500 patients would visit Dr. Siriwardena every day and she would patiently tend to them all, working seven days a week.

Given her dedication, it is not only the residents of Nanneriya who have come to regard the doctor highly. Word had spread that her ‘hands could cure’ and patients from surrounding villages too started to come see her for their ailments.

S.L. Razik, a resident of Wannikudawewa, observed that patients from Giribawa, Nawagattegama, Welewewa, Moragahawewa, Iginimitiya, Palugolla, Kaatuwewa, Sangappalaya, Wanniamunukole, Nallachchiya, Siyambalewa, and Galgamuwa would come to see the doctor even though they had better hospitals in their own areas.

“The doctor does not take a break, she works all seven days a week. I have to say that she rendered a remarkable service during her time here. There were times when she did not even have time to eat. I have seen, with my own eyes, her sipping water to satiate her hunger. A lot of people suffer from mental issues. Some have issues at home. Our doctor would listen to all of them. We share our stories with her. she does not look to any racial or religious divisions.”

Overcoming challenges

Life however had not always been easy for the doctor. Given her success, there have been times where certain parties unhappy about her popularity threatened her and asked her to leave the hospital. R.S.P. Kumari, a resident of Polwatte, Maha Nanneriya, recalled that there was a time when thugs came to her official quarters and threatened her with violence if she did not leave. But Dr. Siriwardena forged ahead regardless of the threats. When rumours spread that she had asked for a transfer, Kumari said the whole village turned up at the hospital and begged her to stay,

“The blood pressure of many of the older women rose during that incident. That is the kind of relationship we have with our doctor.”

“Some doctors work just for their salary, but our doctor is not like that,” she added. “She is friendly to all. There has been no other doctor in this hospital who has been like a daughter, mother, teacher and sister to us. Those before her would come to the hospital at 8 am sharp and leave by noon, regardless of whether there are patients or not. But our doctor is not like that, she would never leave her seat if there was a patient waiting for her outside. When she speaks to the old, calling them ‘mother’ or ‘father’, some start to cry because they experience the love they yearn from their children from her.”

“This job cannot be done by all doctors. It is not easy to work here. It is difficult for them to win the hearts of the people. At times this hospital runs out of essential drugs and because it is not a main hospital, it is also not often that we get expensive drugs. But the doctor has intervened to get these drugs from other hospitals, so the poor don’t have to suffer.”

“Many in this area are daily labourers and are extremely poor,” said retired Principal J. M. Ranga Bandara. “At times they don’t even have the money to take the bus to come and get the medicine. The doctor has helped many such patients. She writes the prescription for drugs that need to be bought from the pharmacy and then asks the patients whether they have the money to purchase them. To be honest, many don’t have money to buy drugs from a pharmacy. It is because of this sensitive nature of hers that we all love her. At any time of the day or night, if a patient is hospitalised, she would rush to the hospital. There have been plenty of times where she has been seen running to the ambulance with an oxygen tank because there were no staff at the hospital to do that.”

Born in Mahara, Kadawatha, Dr. Siriwardena came to this village in the hope of doing her utmost for the people. And her most important contribution has been the desire to truly listen to those who come to her. At a time when doctors hardly have time to listen to the basic needs of their patients, Dr. Siriwardena has proved to be an exception.

Learning to listen

“There are many people who suffer from mental illness in these areas,” said R.H.M. Punchimenika. “As a result, many are suicidal. The doctor spends a lot of time with such patients. She tries to save every patient who is admitted after an attempt at suicide. At times, she tries her best to transfer patients who have been bitten by snakes, who can’t be treated here, to other hospitals so that their lives can be saved. Our doctor has also cured patients who have had infected limbs where other doctors have simply recommended amputation. They all say that they walk today because of this doctor. We also have many kids addicted to drugs in this area. The doctor takes great effort in guiding them along the right path. Some people spend money to travel 15-20 km just to come and see our doctor.”

Nanneriya Hospital Family Health Services Officer Indrani Lalitha Kumari said it was very rare to find such a doctor. “Not everyone is like her. Everyone on the staff has great respect for her. She is very humble when she works with us. She is very motivated to work here and serve the people. It is not easy for all doctors to be like her. But she always does her duty by the patient.”

Finally, as Dr. Siriwardena prepares to leave this week, she said, with tears in her eyes, “From the day I came to work at this hospital, people have treated me well. I too have reciprocated similarly. I am close to all to the extent that though a patient comes to me for treatment, he or she also tells me about all their problems at home.

There are some who simply drop into see me even when they are not sick. Many in this area are not rich. So I have helped many of them as much as I could. When this hospital runs out of drugs for kidney patients, I have had the drugs brought from other hospitals. I believe in sacrificing a lot for my patients. It has been something I was taught in my childhood.

I will be satisfied if I could serve society and its people during the short time between birth and death. It has been four years since I came here and the time has come for me to leave. I have spent so much of time with all the people here that I feel quite sad to leave. If I am given the opportunity to return, I would do so.”

The Nanneriya Divisional Hospital has been crowded for the past few days. They are all not patients. They are those who are grateful to Dr. Siriwardena for having come to their hospital and turned things around for them.



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