Krishantha Prasad Cooray
In a country of cosmetic changes where ‘new faces’ deliver disappointment or worse, it was indeed heartening to learn that Dr Upul Dissanayake has been elected as the next President of the Ceylon College of Physicians.
I first met him years ago, but it didn’t take that long for me to understand why he is so popular among patients. He struck me as an exceptionally charismatic physician. His sincerity and willingness to listen to patients set him apart.
My father-in-law, whose life may have been saved many times due to his intervention, refers to Dr Dissanayake as “The Miracle Doctor.” I have met dozens of patients who share the same sentiments. Many remarking: “After you have a chat with him, you immediately feel better.” They know, as I have, that even if you see him at 1 am in a hospital he will greet you with a broad smile.
He injects confidence in his patients. He explains things in a way that patients can understand. What I admire most about him is his simplicity and his love for Sri Lanka.
He is one doctor I know who will never leave Sri Lanka, no matter what. He just wants to play his part in turning things around in our much-ravaged country and for this he will go the extra mile. It could be fighting the dengue menace or in his own way encouraging colleagues to rethink the option of seeking greener pastures abroad.
In particular, Dr Upul Dissanayake never stops thinking about less advantaged people; he thinks about and finds ways of uplifting their day-to-day life.
None of these things are in his job description. He is not required to do any of it. And yet he does it with passion and love, the only reward being the satisfaction of repaying debts to a nation that supported his education.
Dr Dissanayake was born in Andarawewa, a small village about 25 km away from Anuradhapura. His parents were teachers and therefore his first ‘school’ was Gamini Vidyalaya, Mahawilachchiya where they taught at a single open-air building that constituted the entirety of the school’s architecture. His mother, who first realised his potential, is said to have convinced her husband to obtain a transfer to Kurunegala so Upul could attend Maliyadeva College.
The young boy did more than justice to his parents’ dreams, passing the GCE O/L with flying colours, scoring the second-best marks in the country. He was the only person to secure four A grades at the A/Ls in the bio stream. He was placed 3rd in the merit list.
His academic qualifications and professional achievements speak for themselves, but he would be the last to toss around his curriculum vitae, for Dr Dissanayake is first and last about his work. His world is made of patients and deploying all his knowledge to securing a healthy environment for them to live in and curing them of any ailments they may be afflicted with.
His track record when it comes to public health policy is unblemished. Dr Dissanayake co-authored the National Dengue Fever Management Guidelines in 2010 and 2012, following specialised training in managing Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever, along with a colleague, at the WHO’s collaborative centre in Thailand.
He also implemented a strategic plan to popularize these guidelines through a series of seminars and workshops across the country, especially areas severely affected by the disease. The guidelines are now deployed nationally, and their implementation resulted in reducing the mortality rate from 1.2% to 0.2%. These efforts were complemented by his contribution towards the establishment of a dengue management training programme for nurses in 2012.
He risked a backlash from hardcore racists within his own profession but was unafraid to publicly debunk the ‘wanda pethi’, (infertility pills) canards of opportunistic politicians six years ago. Dr Dissanayake’s public stand to rally colleagues against a hate campaign targeting a minority community was arguably one of his biggest achievements. It helped not only defuse intercommunal tensions, but also resuscitate the integrity and credibility of the medical profession.
His contribution towards the development of specialist medical services in remote rural hospitals is no less impressive. He was appointed as the first Consultant Physician at the Base Hospital in Mahiyangana, serving the rural farming sector and especially the Veddha community. He established the first medical ward, medical clinic and obtained necessary infrastructure facilities for the unit such as Laboratory, X-ray facilities. He launched the ‘Miyuguna Clinical Society’ with the participation of medical officers of district hospitals and peripheral units, aimed at providing continuing medical education to doctors in the region. He continued such efforts wherever he was stationed in – Embilipitiya, Kuliyapitiya and Kalutara.
Dr Dissanayake’s extensive work as a physician did not make any dent in his commitment to learning and scholarship, having produced several important academic papers and delivered many insightful lectures on combatting and treating dengue.
His colleagues would know all this, even though his patients may not. Clearly, they’ve felt that he is eminently suited to grace the important position of President, Ceylon College of Physicians. They would probably agree with me that what is most important about Dr Upul Dissanayake is his rare human qualities. He is a loyal friend and colleague who will never ever say anything negative about anyone else.
On a personal note, I believe that it is time that physicians once again recover their crucially important role of first stop for patients since they are best positioned to take into consideration patients’ histories, family histories, social contexts and ought to be the first and only health professionals referring patients to specialists, a role which unfortunately has been taken over by well-meaning but woefully unqualified patients!
I am confident that Dr Upul Dissanayake would provide the leadership necessary to correct this situation and spur the Ceylon College of Physicians to an even more active role in restoring Sri Lanka’s health sector to its former glory.