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How A Sinhalese Doctor From the South Learnt Tamil On Her Own While Serving In a Northern Hospital After the War Ended.

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By Dr. Bodhini Samaratunga

Living among them, working in the heart of the north where people struggled to heal and hoped to survive
– This is my story.

“If you can’t speak Tamil , then you’d better pack your bags and leave!” the Consultant said in a blunt tone to the doctors who were newly-posted there.

A few years ago, the sound of guns, bombs and aircraft filled the atmosphere of the North. Everything ended for good in May 2009, and now they are in the process of regaining their normal lives, even though most of it had been destroyed beyond repair by the brutal war.

Yes, I wanted to serve in the North and it was the time that our country needed our help by whatever means possible.

Despite the objections of my family, relatives and friends, I started my journey to the hospital at the other end of the country. Traveling to an area in the aftermath of a brutal war was not easy when there were, road blocks, checkpoints and warning tapes on either side of the roads where demining took place.

Roads were all wrecked; there was ongoing construction work here and therely raising heavy brownish clouds of dust and dirt, which eventually stuck to the skin, giving us a brown-dusty tint.

On the very first day the consultant yelled at us popping our ‘highly excited to do the doctor work’ bubble with a loud pop! For, we had no fluency in Tamil.

So here I was, struggling my way around, with no fluency in the language in which 98 percent of this community spoke. It was the time that I regretted the most for not having learned the other language of this country. Now I had to learn it super-fast and become a pro to serve and survive.

Communication was the key of our profession as we had to talk to patients to get the history to identify illnesses and treat them.

Many offered us help with translations during the ward rounds and clinics but with the heavy work-load and the crowds, we couldn’t ask the staff to be with us all the time as this was one of the main general hospitals in the North. Those days it was busy as a beehive. Shortage of staff made life difficult for all who worked and this made them sort of depressed or frustrated.

Our call for help when taking patient histories, was definitely adding more stress to their workload.

In addition to that, there was a risk involved as any errors in translation could make errors in diagnosis which would be disastrous. Going through the ‘Learning Tamil in Sinhala’ books which my mom sent, was a joke with 24/7 on call duty, we hardly had time to eat.

Most of the internal conflicts in this country, I believe, are the results of poor understanding and lack of communication. During first few days, I felt a huge barrier between us and the Tamil speaking staff. In order to lessen the space between us and build a proper work relationship, I wanted to communicate with my staff. I wanted to know them, to share their stories and be a part of the daily chit chat after the ward rounds. I had to act fast as I was determined to speak Tamil! At first, I took a small diary with me and scribbled all the words I heard. All those basic questions and possible replies were glued to my mind at the end of the day after examining about hundred patients. Then I learnt the grammar components which were the key when forming sentences. With, often, at, on, in, or else… I learnt them all and I was connecting words and forming sentences in no time.

Well, I wasn’t perfect with my pronunciation at start. Often made a bit of a blunder with similar sounding nouns, like kattil (bed) and kudi (hut). Sometimes, patients asked me which room to go to, when I simply wanted them to get on the examination bed. Ambala (male) pombala (female) was another that slipped my mind, and I sang the song “pombule mage pombule tharadevi pombule” (from the drama Thaaradevi)…in my head to sort out this mishap before I opened my mouth!

Every single day I remember myself laughing at one of my colleges who tried to learn Sinhalese, when she went to a pregnant mother and said “amma kahanna” (mother could you scratch?) instead of “kahinna” (cough) and the response of the confused patient was hilarious. Now the table had turned and I was the joke, bringing laughter to the patients with my mix of Tamilsinglish.

Within a week of practice I was speaking Tamil in ward rounds, clinics and even with the sanitary workers whom I met in the corridors. Instead of sending patients to a nurse or a midwife outside, I could talk to them and give them all the advice on follow up and treatment in their own language.

One day it caught the eye of a new Consultant who was a Tamil. He was surprised to hear that I learned on my own and improved within weeks.

Knowing that the Tamil speaking doctors weren’t fluent in Sinhala he told them that they should start learning and speaking Sinhala language like I did, for one day it will come in handy when they are posted to an area with a Sinhala speaking community.

Once a young lady was admitted to our ward with a high fever and a vaginal discharge. She showed signs of septicemia and was not in her senses. As soon as she underwent surgery, to remove the infected parts of a dead fetus, we had to transfer her to a hospital that had an Intensive care unit. When we tried to arrange an ambulance the transport unit was not fully aware of the patient’s condition and had other tasks assigned to it on the way to the other hospital. Delaying transfer would cause major issues regarding her recovery and now I had to reason with the officer who was in-charge of transport that this patient’s life is more important than their other assigned tasks.

After the arguments when I finally got into the ambulance the driver gave me a thumbs up and said, “suuupper doctor, I just heard you speaking in Tamil? I wondering if you aran’t from this area because your surname sounds alien.”

My transformation into a Tamil language Pro within weeks was a surprise to all, some asked if I was from north, or my village was near the hospital. When I accompanied a patient, on a transfer to a hospital in south, the nurses asked if I was a Tamil as now I had developed sort of an accent!

Courtesy:The Nation/Humans of Northern Sri Lanka

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