When Dr. Benita Weerasinghe walked out of the gates of Welikada prison for the last time in July 2013, she felt both regret and relief; regret because she was retiring after a rewarding career in Medicine, relief because the last five years as MOIC (Medical Officer in Charge) of the prison hospital had been more [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Life among genuine patients, conmen and murderers


When Dr. Benita Weerasinghe walked out of the gates of Welikada prison for the last time in July 2013, she felt both regret and relief; regret because she was retiring after a rewarding career in Medicine, relief because the last five years as MOIC (Medical Officer in Charge) of the prison hospital had been more demanding and stressful than any other period in her life.

Whatever offences they may have committed, when prisoners enter hospital, they are reduced to the common denominator of “Patient”, and are treated as such explained Dr. Benita. But there are times when the nature of the patients they are dealing with comes home with shocking reality. She recalled being in a male ward one night when a power failure took place. Fear gripped her as she realised she was among desperate men who’d do anything to attempt an escape. But day to day stress was due to other reasons.
Unlike in other hospitals said Dr. Benita, the responsibility for even the most routine matters not only lies directly with the MOIC, but also requires a great deal of thought and planning because of the security and other risks involved.

Dr. Benita Weerasinghe

Malingering is also common among prisoners who often pretend to be ill for a prolonged stay in a hospital ward is more comfortable than prison quarters.

Veteran prisoners give truly of their advice to new-comers about which illnesses to avoid and which ones are credible. An all-round favourite is back ache because it cannot be disproved even with X-rays and scans.

Even experienced doctors can be deceived by the symptoms described accompanied by some excellent acting!

When their demands are not met, these men and woman who had conducted their own affairs with a total disregard for the law would suddenly turn to the law to gain their own ends. Quoting ‘human rights’ they would take legal action against the MOIC. The usual causes for litigation are refusal to be admitted to a ward or to be transferred to another hospital.

Transferring a patient is always risky. Dr Benita related the story of one young man who appeared to have symptoms of severe asthma, whom she had transferred to the N.H.S.L. (National Hospital of Sri Lanka). The next thing she heard was that while being examined, the patient had thrust the doctor and nurse aside with a mighty shove, run out of the ward, jumped over a parapet wall and escaped.
Although Dr. Benita took litigation in her stride, court attendance was time-consuming and of little use, since almost all the cases were dismissed.

Dr. Benita also spoke with compassion of the genuinely sick patients who died in the prison hospital sometimes friendless and abandoned by relatives.

But working in a prison hospital has its lighter moments according to Dr. Benita, who in the midst of it all never lost her sense of humour. She had once transferred about four male prisoners to the N.H.S.L After a few days of treatment they were sent back to the prison hospital. The men were furious with Dr Benita for having taken them back and decided to take action against her in the form of a fast.

“Stone walls do not a prison make,” wrote the poet Oscar Wilde. True enough. Those inmates scaled the stone walls of Welikada prison and got on to the roof, stood there very macho and defiant, under the blazing noon sun, heedless of the pleas of the prison guards.

Around 3 p.m. nature decided to take a hand. The skies split open. Buffeted by the lashing rain, the single all-consuming desire now was to climb down but the roof was slippery and a fall could be fatal. So they begged and pleaded of the very guards they had scolded a while before, to help them get down. Nor did they come down empty-handed said Dr. Benita, laughing heartily as she recalled the episode. They were brought-down with their bags bulging with biscuits and other eatables and bottles of soft drink.

How did she find the strength of mind to balance her strenuous duties with family responsibilities?

For the answer, Dr. Benita went back to another day in 2013 (a significant year for her) when along with her career her family responsibilities too were completed, for on that day her youngest daughter Hirushi was to receive her medical degree
Seated at the BMICH, awaiting the start of the convocation proceedings, Benita went back in memory to where it had all begun – her home with her parents and two sisters in Waikkala, Negombo and her education in St. Bridget’s Convent Colombo and Ave Maria Convent Negombo. When she and her sisters were still in primary school, her mother became paralysed, and when she was a second year medical student Benita lost her father.

Young Benita, forced to face the facts of her circumstance made a few quiet decisions. She’d work hard and get her medical degree. She’d encourage her two sisters Nirmali and Yasmine, and they’d look after their mother, which they did until she was 75 years old.
In time she added other goals, she’d marry and raise a fine family, and give a sound education to her three daughters.

Now at the BMICH Dr. Benita recalled the many medical convocations she had attended, those of her two sisters and her husband (now Consultant Physician Wimal Weerasinghe). With pride she thought of her eldest daughter Thanushi who had got the best results in the island, and Dinushi obtaining an upper second class. With two of her sons-in-law in Medicine (one being a professor in electronic engineering) the tally of doctors in the family was seven.

On that day in 2013, her life seemed to have come full circle as she watched her youngest daughter Hirushi walk up to the stage to receive her medical degree and ten gold medals.

Now, looking youthful and relaxed, Dr. Benita spoke of women like herself where careers and basic family responsibilities have came to an end. She believes that they should make the best use of this period by taking greater care of their health and pride in their appearance. They should also have some special interests.

She herself enjoys dancing and swimming, taking long walks in the parks and travelling.

As for the future, she leaves her options open while she enjoys her new found freedom. But for Dr. Benita Weerasinghe there will always be new goals to reach.

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