Never does he see patients free of charge. He does charge a fee, he says without hesitation.
The consultation fee is Rs. 50!
In a day and age when specialist doctors are charging anything between Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 1,500, sometimes for a consultation which is no more than a quick five minutes, the meagre Rs. 50 that this Consultant Ophthalmologist charges is not only a pointer to his personality but also his life’s work.
|Doctor and musician: Dr. Seimon obliges with a melody on the piano that displays a photograph of his daughter the late Ruwani and (below) work carried out by the SLEF.
Pix by Saman Kariyawasam
And his life’s work has been geared towards none other than the uplifting vision of preventing blindness.
Having heard numerous tales but not having ever met Dr. Reggie Seimon, the image in my mind’s eye is well and truly shattered on Saturday, February 12, when having just come down to Colombo from Kandy where he is based, he meets the Sunday Times to talk about his life and times. The interview being necessitated by the news that Dr. Seimon, along with wife Indira, is to emigrate to Australia
The image is of a towering personality exuding not only an aura of absolute confidence but also arrogance that most well-known doctors do. The person who smilingly greets us at a house on Walauwatte Road, down Pepiliyana, is diminutive and sprightly, and looks nowhere near the 73 that he claims to be.
Yes, he will be leaving for Australia on April 5, he says, to be with his one and only son. This was because he was prone to bouts of illness after the emotional upheaval he and Indira faced with the death of their daughter Ruwani (this well-known musician and singer fell victim to cancer and succumbed on November 7, 2007).
The medication taken for psoriasis which he has been suffering from for 30 years caused many problems, says Dr. Seimon, with a shadow of sorrow passing over his face when talking of his beloved daughter.
Yes, they do have lots of doctor-friends in Kandy and Colombo whom they could depend on but it is not fair to burden them and stress Indira, he says. Many were the times his son, Samantha, himself a doctor in Australia had to travel up and down to see him, hence the difficult decision to pack up and go there.
The memories flow encompassing those times from childhood to now. Although his base is Kandy and has been for a long while, he was born in Payagala on the southern coast, having his early education at Holy Family Convent, Kalutara, and moving on to Holy Cross College, Kalutara, for the Ordinary Level and finally to De Mazenod College, Kandana, for the Advanced Level.
Later, it was the Colombo Medical Faculty in 1957 followed by internship, after which he was decisive that ophthalmology was his calling. 1965 sees Dr. Seimon leaving for England to secure a Diploma in Ophthalmology, serving short stints in Colombo and Galle on his return and putting down roots in Chilaw for five years, while overseeing both Puttalam and Negombo from there.
“Even as my wife was giving birth to our daughter at the Chilaw Hospital on March 29, 1968, I was cutting the first sod to lay the foundation stone for the 18-bed eye ward at the same hospital,” he says, recalling the day with ease.
Back in London in 1970, he “did the circuit” gaining the FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) to return to Sri Lanka in October 1972 to give of his expertise in Batticaloa, working also in Kalmunai and Amparai before being transferred to Kandy.
“Did you know that when I went to Kandy there were only six Ophthalmologists for the whole country? Now there are 60,” he quips, adding that every station is manned by an eye doctor.
For Dr. Seimon there were no crossroads – it was way back in 1959 as a young and impressionable medical student that he set his sights on following the path of an eye surgeon after seeing Dr. Siva Subramaniam (now deceased) perform a corneal graft on a patient who was blind. “The patient was jubilant, as if he had seen Jesus for the first time,” he says and for him the road became clear and he made a “beeline to ophthalmology”.
But his goal was not only to become a capable Ophthalmologist, attending to people with eye issues. He has gone beyond the call of duty, setting up the Sri Lanka Eye Foundation (SLEF) to help hundreds, nay thousands of hapless fellow human beings.
The prod came when he was working at Batticaloa. “Humble people would travel a hundred miles to see the eye doctor but by the time they arrived at the clinic it would be closed. Then they would go back home. After two or three such trips, they would give up, thinking ‘mama giya ethi’ (it’s enough now). They would not come back, but go blind in the process,” he says, adding that it was then that he thought: Let’s build more wards to make eye care more accessible.
His dream became a reality when he wrote to all and sundry who knew him, relatives and friends, to send whatever they could and with this fund-raising built 16-bed wards at Puttalam, Nuwara Eliya, Moneragala, Mahiyanganaya, Polonnaruwa and Hambantota.“This is not the best way to go about it,” his American friend Cliff Parker advised him, pushing him to form a Foundation with eminent people as trustees. It was then that the SLEF saw the light of day, with Dr. Seimon enhancing his vision to set up an Eye Hospital in Kandy (at that time only Colombo had an Eye Hospital) with donations amounting to Rs. 12 million from Canada, Rs. 6m from Lions International and Rs. 3m from the President’s Fund. The four-storey 200-bed ‘Centre for Sight’, the second biggest in the country -- next to the Eye Hospital in Colombo -- constructed without any funding from the government will forever stand in concrete testimony to the SLEF’s invaluable service to Sri Lankans.
Incidentally, lesser known angles of this multi-faceted personality also come to the fore as he hands over a CD he has produced to raise funds for the SLEF. Dr. Seimon is not only an accomplished pianist but also plays the trumpet, the clarinet and the saxophone. He has also authored ‘Of Days Gone By’ which he has dedicated “for Ru, for encouraging me in whatever foolish endeavour I choose to embark on”. Urged to play the piano, he confesses that he decided not to do so the time Ruwani became a better pianist and now because his grandson (Ruwani’s eldest son) beats, him but obliges the Sunday Times with a lovely melody.
The SLEF was also the bedrock from which a many-pronged campaign “to spread light and enable sight” was spearheaded by Dr. Seimon. While building eye wards for as many hospitals as possible and providing state-of-the-art equipment and also distributing spectacles to the needy, the SLEF took upon itself the task of educating health workers as well as the public on the prevention of blindness.
“Those days many adults went blind due to cataracts,” says Dr. Seimon but now it has changed and the focus should be on glaucoma and diabetes which if undetected could lead to blindness.
The first battle the SLEF fought to prevent children from losing their vision was launched when he realized that congenital rubella was the culprit and quickly imported 38,000 vials of vaccine for women on the threshold of marriage. This pre-empted them falling victim to the measles virus which during pregnancy leads to the foetus contracting congenital rubella which has a devastating impact. Blindness is just one of the fallouts with disability and a score of others. The vaccination programme was later undertaken by the Health Ministry.
But regret creeps into his voice, as Dr. Seimon talks of the “lost battle” to push legislation against consanguineous (first-cousin) marriages which also result in children of such couples being born blind. It went to Parliament but was thrown out at the third committee stage, he says, explaining that usually such marriages are encouraged by elders to keep the wealth within a family.
But he and the SLEF have not given up. For not only does he display banners on his car dissuading such marriages but has also persuaded friends and relatives to do the same.
What of the future of the SLEF and such campaigns that he has been heading as Founder Chairman?
Dr. Seimon pauses to take stock before answering. Dr. A.B. Abeysinghe will take over from him, he says. Personally he is not happy about leaving (“if not for Ru’s death I wouldn’t leave”), for the future seems bleak as he packs his diamond knives (with which eye surgery is performed) and bids goodbye to his beloved grandsons (Ruwani’s children) who are the apple of his eye.
He will be giving up what he knows best – 25 eye surgeries that he has been doing daily since 1997, for the FRCS is not recognized in Australia. “I will try to persuade my friends over there to let me do at least three surgeries for charity,” he hopes, becoming upbeat again and pointing out that he is learning math so that he can teach children over there.
There is, however, one moment in time that he wishes he could get back, a moment during his tenure as a houseman in Galle a long time ago. He was on a bus awaiting a journey home, the fare of which was three rupees. An achchi stood at the bottom of the bus steps lamenting that she was short of just 25 cents to pay the fare.
“The bus pulled out and I didn’t give her the 25 cents,” says Dr. Seimon, voicing a regret he has not let go so many years after. From that regret, however, arises words of wisdom………..“there’s only one life and if you want to do something, do it right now, for this moment will never come back to you again.”
(The Sri Lanka Eye Foundation located at 8/6, Sangaraja Mawatha, Hillwood Road, Kandy may be contacted on Phone/Fax: 011-081-2234739 or E-mail: email@example.com. Its website is: www.srilankaeyefoundation.110mb.com)