The making of doctors: The fun, the fear and finals

By Bandu Edussuriya

We met at last after 50 years - 18 of us from our original batch of 83 of ‘53. Some had left for the great beyond, some were too ill to come, some unwilling.

I remember when we first met in 1953. We were the flower of Sri Lankan youth after a free education, gathered at the Colombo University, all sleek and fresh, mostly clad in white, eagerly waiting to enter the hallowed seat of learning to learn the art of healing. Youth from the south, girls with pottus from the north, the dress-clad girls from the Colombo schools, - the dark and handsome, the tall and short, the petite and the plump, all the mama’s darlings and papa’s dreams.

There was a certain amount of trepidation as we had heard of a thing called the rag. But our heads were in the air. We were the chosen few from the whole country.

The feeling of freedom was overwhelming, exhilarating and sometimes even frightening. Certainly it was too much for me. The availability of all kinds of sports, well stocked libraries, cinemas within cycling distance, leisurely walks to lectures along shady tree-lined roads gave us a world of our own. We started university education against the backdrop of a rich country with a stable government. There were plenty of friends, stag and rag parties, music and singing which got rid of our inhibitions. A cup – tea – punt at Lion House, Bambalawatte after a late night gallery show at the Majestic cinema were routine. Films like Casablanca, Gaslight, Redshoes, Samson and Delilah, From here to Eternity come to my mind. The only limiting factor was the non- cooperation from the home front -their allowance was very meagre. Thinking back, I am glad about that because some more of us may have gone “ off the track” if we had more cash, like a few in our batch.

The first year was a fun year: a year of acclimatisation. We met students from other faculties. This was the first time we had such a lot of young girls in our midst. We had get-togethers, picnics and excursions, amongst work in the relaxed atmosphere of Thurstan Road. The canteen with the tea cups without handles, tables wet and smelling of tea was a regular meeting place. One day we were due for a chemistry lecture and at about 2 p.m. in walked the lecturer -a Burgher gentlemen in white suit and bow tie.

Over his shoulders was a black cloak and a black cap with mortarboard and tassels on his head. He wore rimless glasses, had a pencil-line moustache and spoke with a British accent. The effect, at 2 in the afternoon was too much for us. We stamped our feet with all our might on the wooden floorboards. The lecturer smiled. He too enjoyed the situation thoroughly. He spoke for about an hour. We were the gazing rustics ranged around, amazed that one small head could carry all that he knew (with apologies to Oliver Goldsmith ).

The second year was a different kettle of fish. We went to the Medical Faculty where we were thrown headlong into the harsh realities of a medical education.

The sudden exposure to the dissecting room was shocking. Blackened bodies were lying on tiled slabs in a large hall. The stench was overpowering. We were ordered to dissect them. This was going to be our environment for the next two years. So armed with scalpel and forceps, with manual in hand, we started cutting. It was stench in the mornings, smell in the evenings and nightmares at midnight.
The knowledge of the functional aspects of the body was imparted on the other side of the road. They were Koch , Tom and Watson sessions. We hurtled along with the turbulences of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. The 2nd MB was the first checkpoint. Most of us made it – some with classes, medals and distinctions.

The third year presented new facets. Now we were exposed to human beings, though they were ill, rather than dead bodies. With story and tale, with palpitations, palpations and percussions and with bloodied fingers we had to give a verdict. Medicine was imparted by sedate, sagacious professors and wise, witty physicians. We saw tender livers, enlarged spleens, noisy lungs, large hearts, fluid in abdomens, diabetes and paralysis. We tried to hear non-existent heart murmurs and feel cardiac thrills.

Then came our stint with the surgeons: the Brahmins of the hospital. They were deft with the scalpels and apt with their tongues. They were master cutters and they cut on the trot. The awe of the operating theatre replaced the stench of the bodies. Overpowering, irate surgeons, fearsome professors, demanding Registrars, masked and gowned nurses hiding a lot of curves, uncooperative Sisters, X rays, flowing E.C.Gs, complicated blood reports, sterile areas, caps and gowns, pin-drop silence, bloody dressings, open abdomens, Thomas’s splints, crushed limbs, cracked skulls, smell of ether all were in this segment.

Obstetrics and pediatrics followed: howling women in labour, the unmistakable odour of labour rooms, undernourished mothers, underweight bawling babies, smell of baby stools, diphtheritic croup, tracheostomies in a row, aircraft splints for polio kids, carcinomas in jars, liver slides under the mikes, strangulated necks, bullet holes in heads, daggers and knives were regular sights. Now Phlebotamas papatasi and Ankylostoma duodenale of Parasitalingam, were getting mixed up with Ps. Pyoceanus and E. coli of Chapman. We saw breast carcinomas like split pomegranates and liver abscess-pus like wood apple juice. We were in that medical era sans C.T. and M.R.I scans, ultra sounds, cardiac stents, tumour markers, blood oxymeters,laparoscopes, drip - sets etc etc.

It was the time when tinctures and mixtures were being replaced by pills and injections and religious sisters were replaced by Health Department ones, in the wards. An innumerable number of drugs came into the picture with their doses for the various diseases in grams, milligrams,grains, millilitres, litres and even ounces.

The vast living laboratory of patients at the General Hospital complex was at our disposal. Loads of information was imparted to us daily which could only be assimilated in a week. Some teachers gave us valuable information on common diseases in understandable ways. They made us capable of recognising and treating common diseases. Others went for the small print as well.

Some of our teachers were different. They ridiculed us, shouted at us, made us look fools, crushed us psychologically and shattered our paltry self confidence. We feared them. I do not know whether they realized that we were human beings and would be the next generation of medical men and may have to treat them when they fell ill. They were rarely friendly- we were on the ‘other side of the table’ most of the time.

With all this we enjoyed life. I would give a lot to go back in time and spend one year of those halcyon days again. We played in University teams, went on inter-faculty trips. Some of us played for National teams. Occasionally the “bad boys”( myself included), got drunk, sang bailas and danced aided by the “old stuff” and went flat - the good ones pretended. Affairs were started, broken, continued, restarted, consolidated and the couples lived happily ever-after like budgerigars . We enjoyed Sheba’s melodies, Dago’s antics and J.P. Jega’s guffaws.

We had absorbed and absorbed as much of medical knowledge we could and awaited the long dreaded final. Our ears were filled with heart murmurs, we imagined lumps and bumps in all the people and breach presentations in all pregnant women, Kwashiorkor and meningitis in all the babies- in short we were toxic.

The final checkpoint came - theory, cases and vivas. Exams are one of the best forms of torture ever devised - better than Abu Gharib or the Fourth Floor, only the torture was mental, no visible marks. We had spent the best part of our young lives to acquire a little knowledge of this fine art of healing. The results came suddenly to the notice board. There were passes, classes and distinctions - most of us were jubilant.

We parted with P.B. and R.P., with Hilary and Handy, with Paul and Peris, Ranaya, Sinna and Prins, with Misso and Austin, with C.C. and Stella, we cut the cord with the General Hospital complex as undergrads. It had been our milieu- exterior and even our interior for five years.

We dispersed like a cloud burst - brand new doctors of medicine this time. Internship followed. Then we spread again. Some to foreign countries, some to prestigious posts at home and we rarely met together again.

After fifty years we have met – some of us for the first time after Medical College. Almost all have a string of letters after their names. They are enjoying their grandchildren and retired from active service. Added to medicine there were authors and advisors, historians and teachers.

We met at the large “square - architectured” Blue Water hotel in Wadduwa, with the Indian Ocean as a backdrop. We had dinner and drinks together, gossiped about old times, met spouses, and departed with heavy hearts no longer youthful doctors but sedate and wise, still young at heart though some us, I think are on a regular diet of Metformin, Cardiprin and statins etc !

[ Some of the views are solely the author’s. Comments are welcome ]

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