Saving the day
Naomi Gunasekara meets a naval officer who is willing to risk his life to save others

When Surgeon 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.

Attached to 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 to his medical profession (and) conspicuous bravery to save the lives of casualties, even risking his own life."

Dr. Gunatilake 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.

However, the Tri-forces Board decided otherwise and gave Dr. Gunatilake an award, one rank below what was recommended - the Rana Wickrama Padakkama.

"That 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.

Speaking of 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," he said.

Attending to 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.

On November 4 when Gajaba was vacated, Dr. Gunatilake waited until the last casualty was removed before leaving with a few personnel through the jungle.

"We headed towards Mankulam and saw injured personnel along the road. I treated them immediately and took necessary steps to transfer them to safety.

Thousands of 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."

Dr. Gunatilake 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.

After being 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.

Studying in 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.

They didn't 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."

Dr. Gunatilake 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 adds.

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