The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A doctor whose career became a mission

Grievously hurt by a stray bullet in the crossfire on the night of April 28, 2007 when LTTE aircraft attacked Colombo Dr. Buvanendranathan Aathavan now Consultant Surgeon at the Vavuniya District Hospital relates his ordeal and his journey back to normal life

When he woke up that day, Dr. Buvanendranathan Aathavan had no premonition that before the next dawn he would come within an inch of losing his life.Now, five years later, Dr. Aathavan speaks of the traumatic event soberly and without embellishments; none are needed because the facts speak so eloquently for themselves.

That day, April 28, 2007 started ordinarily enough. The 37- year-old Senior Registrar in Surgery went to the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL), performed some routine operations and did the ward rounds.The evening, however, promised to be different, for Sri Lanka was playing Australia in the Cricket World Cup finals, and Dr. Aathavan looked forward to an exciting match.

That evening refreshed after a bath and dinner in his house in Frankfurt Place, Bambalapitiya, Dr. Aathavan was in his living room watching the match, when the lights went out. Picking up a transistor radio, he went upstairs and lay down on his bed next to his wife Shivashakthy.

All of a sudden there was the sound of an explosion inside the room and Dr. Aathavan felt his left leg slip at an odd angle while something trickled down his leg. He knew instantly that a stray bullet had hit him. His cry alerted his wife and his father who immediately rushed to get help.

As he placed his hands on his side, Dr. Aathavan realized that his abdomen had split open and the contents were spilling out. He knew he was grievously hurt, and unless something was done quickly he would bleed to death.Holding his bowels in place with his sarong, he placed his left hand firmly on the wound. With his right hand he used his mobile telephone to call his Consultant Surgeon Dr. K.Alagaratnam and Medical Officer Dr. S. Somasekeran.

Neighbours and Dr. Aathavan’s father drove him to Delmon the closest hospital, where Dr. Alagaratnam joined them. The Delmon Hospital ambulance then sped them to the NHSL.With no time for x – rays, Dr. Alagaratnam and Dr. Ranjith. Ellawela performed damage control surgery, removing a portion of the large bowel in a colostomy. Later, x- rays were to reveal the bullet embedded in the pelvic bone.

Subsequently the 200 gram anti- aircraft bullet was removed by neurosurgeon Dr. Himashi Kularatne.At every stage of his trauma, Dr. Aathavan’s main thought was how to overcome his disabilities and get on with his life and career; and so after about two months in hospital, and with the colostomy bag still attached to his body, he started to work again.

During this time he also attended the convocation held at the BMICH to receive the degree of Master of Surgery.Dr. Aathavan underwent two more operations, one to close the colostomy and the other to repair the damage to his pelvis. The latter was performed by Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Dhammika Dissanayake.

Glad they were spared: Dr. Aathavan with his children

Despite the permanent nerve damage to his left leg, Dr Aathavan continued to progress in his career. He spent 2009 -2011 in India doing his overseas training, with a break in July 2010 to attend the convocation in Britain to receive the degree of M.R.C.S. England.

In the midst of it all,Dr. Aathavan found things to be thankful for. If this ‘bolt from the blue’ had to hit someone, he was thankful that it had hit him and not his wife or his children who were in the bedroom at the time. He was also thankful that the bullet entered his abdomen and not his head or heart.

He is also immensely thankful to his surgeons and anaesthetists, the doctors, nurses and other medical staff for their kindness and care. He speaks with gratitude of his father Mr. K. Buvanendranathan  for his support during and after the event and his neighbours K.Kannan and Roy Nicholas for risking their lives in the on-going firing to drive him to Delmon Hospital.

Has this tragic event affected his beliefs? It has confirmed his belief in God, says Dr. Aathavan, an intensely religious Hindu, who points out that something beyond human understanding was at work that day: the bullet passed through his abdomen without injuring a single vital organ, he was able to remain conscious until he was anaesthetized and later, he was miraculously healed of a harrowing side effect which could have affected his day -to – day life. All this cannot be dismissed as blind chance, holds Dr Aathavan who feels that God spared him for some reason.

Has this experience changed his attitude to his patients? Before answering this question, Dr. Aathavan recalls being wheeled into the operating theatre — this place that was second home to him. How often had Aathavan the surgeon stood where his own surgeons now stood, garbed in the green surgical kit, ready to wield the scalpel?

Now the roles were reversed and as Aathavan lay a helpless patient on the operating table under the blazing overhead lights, he felt, he says, only stark fear.As a result he has greater empathy with his patients, feeling their pain, their fear and their anxiety at a deeply personal level.

The experience has also taught him the importance of reassurance from his doctors, the kindness and care of nurses and attendants, and the love and concern of relatives and friends. Without such psychological and emotional support, states Dr. Aathavan categorically, healing cannot take place.

Today, as Consultant Surgeon of the Vavuniya District Hospital, Dr. Aathavan leads a full and rewarding life. He offers his services voluntarily to the Mother Teresa Home for Elders, screening the 105 residents and performing surgery when necessary.
He also does voluntary work at the two children’s homes in Vavuniya run by Roman Catholic missionaries.

On his visits to Colombo Dr. Aathavan appears live on medical awareness programmes on ITN’s Vasantham TV and on Shakthi TV.
And so, this quiet, unassuming man, his body ravaged by the bullet wound and by surgical scars, but his mind untouched by bitterness or a futile ranting against fate, carries on his humanitarian tasks in a career that has been transformed into a mission.

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