Saving the day
Gunasekara meets a naval officer who is willing to risk his life
to save others
Lt. I. N. P. Gunatilake arrived at the naval base in Oddusudan to
conduct awareness lectures on November 1, 1999, he little envisaged
treating tractor-loads of casualties for three consecutive days.
the Navy's Pandukabaya sick quarters as Command Medical Officer
(CMO) North Central Command, he fought a solitary battle behind
enemy lines to save lives following a surprise attack by the LTTE
on November 2, 1999.
He made history
last week by becoming the first Sri Lankan naval doctor to be awarded
a Gallantry Medal by the President at the Gallantry Awards Ceremony
held at the BMICH on Tuesday. He received the Rana Wickrama Padakkama
Gallantry Award in recognition of his "unwavering commitment
his medical profession (and) conspicuous bravery to save the lives
of casualties, even risking his own life."
was in fact recommended for one of the in fact highest honours bestowed
on forces' personnel - the Weera Wickrama Vibhushanaya - by Rear
Admiral L. D. Dharmapriya. "Due to his commitment to service
as well as unflagging inspiration displayed whilst most of his staff
cowardly retreated to Walagamba and safe places, he must be credited
for saving lives of wounded personnel risking his own life,"
the Rear Admiral wrote, highly recommending him for the medal.
Tri-forces Board decided otherwise and gave Dr. Gunatilake an award,
one rank below what was recommended - the Rana Wickrama Padakkama.
is alright. I did what was best for the country," said Dr.
Gunatilake, who fought against many odds during his service in the
North Central and Eastern FDLs. Outspoken and dedicated to his work,
Dr. Gunatilake was at the receiving end of many insults for carrying
out humanitarian work in the Sinhalese and Tamil border villages
unvisited by health officials and doctors.
He has saved
many lives, including that of a woman in labour, crossing heavily
mined areas to distribute leaflets and conduct health clinics in
schools in distant villages.
the act for which he was awarded the medal, he said; "When
the attack intensified, casualties poured into the sick quarters
of Vijayaba and I had to do whatever I could with the little supplies
I had." Treating patients round the clock with the assistance
of junior medical staff amidst heavy fighting, Dr. Gunatilake remained
at Oddusudan despite being ordered to move to the adjoining base.
"The enemy inched forward but I couldn't abandon the patients,"
the last casualty, he had moved to the Walagamba base through jungle
terrain around 4 p.m. on November 2 and resumed treating patients
immediately. "Walagamba was vacated later and we moved to Gajaba
where I treated more casualties," he said. Reaching Gajaba,
he treated more patients without a break, transferring serious cases
to the Anuradhapura General Hospital.
4 when Gajaba was vacated, Dr. Gunatilake waited until the last
casualty was removed before leaving with a few personnel through
towards Mankulam and saw injured personnel along the road. I treated
them immediately and took necessary steps to transfer them to safety.
personnel were at the front at the time of this attack and most
of them were displaced after injury. Heading towards Mankulam on
foot with six officers and making their way through dense forest
with the help of a compass and map, Dr. Gunatilake treated over
1,500 casualties behind enemy lines. Finding an abandoned ambulance,
he transferred all casualties to safe places and treated them in
the open. "Most of them were placed under trees and given medical
and surgical assistance. Saline drips with relevant drugs had to
be attached to tree barks and branches."
who holds a degree from the Russian State Medical University in
Moscow, recalls a case where he performed vascular grafting instead
of amputation as directed, on two sailors injured in Operation Jayasikuru.
transferred to Colombo in June 2000, he does volentary work with
the NGO, Success Organisation, conducting clinics and awareness
programmes in the north central and east when on leave. But he still
feels restricted in Colombo. "No other doctor was willing to
work in these areas because they had to work under extremely difficult
conditions with constant threats to one's life," he said, adding
that he often faced harsh treatment because of his foreign education.
Russia on a scholarship had not been easy for Dr. Gunatilake who
was determined to work for the forces on return. "I was there
when Perestroika was taking place and sought out opportunities to
work in army hospitals in Russia to gain some exposure," he
said. Returning to Sri Lanka, he joined the navy despite strong
opposition from his family. "My parents, especially my father
Dr. P. K. Gunatilake who was a doctor himself, objected.
speak to me for a long time but my father visited me before his
death and told me that he would come for my passing out ceremony."
hopes to go back to the difficult areas,one day. "I can proudly
say that I have saved many lives, limbs and kept morale high among
the personnel. I want to be where my service is needed, especially
in difficult areas and save as many lives as possible," he