Trailblazing anaesthetist who stood above the rest Dr. B.S. (Bertie) Perera “There are men and classes of men who stand above the common herd: the soldier, the sailor and the shepherd not infrequently, the artist rarely, rarely still the clergyman; the physician almost as a rule. He is the flower of civilisation……” (Robert Louis Stevenson [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka



Trailblazing anaesthetist who stood above the rest

Dr. B.S. (Bertie) Perera

“There are men and classes of men who stand above the common herd: the soldier, the sailor and the shepherd not infrequently, the artist rarely, rarely still the clergyman; the physician almost as a rule. He is the flower of civilisation……” (Robert Louis Stevenson 19th Century Scottish Author)

Dr. Bertram S. Perera was indeed one who stood above the common herd, and even head and shoulders above most physicians. I say this not only because of his physical appearance, being fair, tall, with a mane of thick hair, twinkling eyes and a ready smile, but also because of his vibrant personality and his unparalleled professional skills. Of his many outstanding qualities, the most significant was his care and concern for all those who crossed his path, whether they were patients, colleagues or aspiring young doctors.

I clearly remember the first time I met him in May 1967, outside the operating theatre in the De Soysa Maternity Hospital, where I was hovering timidly, waiting to speak to Dr. Ariyaman Mendis, the consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist . I had just graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo, and having done well in obstetrics, I had decided to do my first intern appointment with Dr. Mendis. Dr. B.S. Perera saw me and said: “Girl, you look worried, what is your problem? Can I help you?”

I replied that I was keen to do my intern appointment under Dr. Mendis but had been warned by seniors that Dr. Mendis did not tolerate women doctors! Dr. Perera reassured me and advised me to go ahead and apply for the post as long as I was ready to work hard.

By the end of my internship, I had changed my mind from following a career in obstetrics, and had chosen anaesthesia as my specialty. I must state that this decision was greatly influenced by my weekly encounters with Dr. Perera during the routine operating lists. I opted to train in anaesthesia under Dr. Perera in 1968. He was my mentor, guide and friend who guided my first faltering steps in anaesthesia. He had the ability to teach the many manual skills in anaesthesia with much ease, thereby helping me build up confidence in myself. In an era when monitoring facilities were not available, he taught me to be a vigilant anaesthetist, the best monitor of all. He also taught me to develop a sixth sense and anticipate problems, which is essential to being a good doctor.

Dr. Perera had his own unique style of teaching. I remember him teaching me to perform a lumbar puncture to do a spinal block. He remarked that once you had chosen the space, you should, “go above the lower spine, but not below the upper spine”. This I found to be a useful tip which I have passed on to my trainees over the past 30 years.

Dr. Perera made the theatre come alive with his jokes and infectious laughter. The minor staff adored him and ran to do his slightest bidding. They were flattered to be given nick names like “Yakshaya” and “Yodaya”.

Dr. Perera loved to perform surgery, and some days he would walk into the theatre and declare that he was the surgeon for the day. So I would perform a spinal block under his vigilant eye, and he would proceed to do a vaginal hysterectomy and repair with a finesse that was second to none. He was popularly known as the “Operating Anaesthetist”. Dr. A.M. Mendis and Dr. Henry Nanayakkara (consultant obstetricians and gynaecologists) humoured him, being well aware of his surgical skills and knowing that their patients were in safe hands.

Dr. Perera’s talents and interests were not confined to his profession. He had a melodious singing voice which was a treat to listen to, joining us when we went carol singing or attending a party at his residence. He was a graceful and elegant ballroom dancer, and breeding Boxer dogs was his passion.

Dr. Perera retired from the Public Sector as consultant anaesthetist to the Colombo Group of Hospitals in 1972. He proceeded to Hong Kong where he worked at the United Christian Hospital for a short period after which he moved to Tasmania, Australia, where he worked as a consultant for many years. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1994. Realising that there was a severe shortage of anaesthetists in the army at a time when our country was at war, he worked in the Army Hospital on a sessional basis from 1997 to 2000 when he was in his eighties. He donated his remuneration to the National Defence Fund. He was known to be the oldest practising anaesthetist in the region.

When I was inducted President of the College of Anaesthesiologists of Sri Lanka in 1996, Dr. Perera was delighted. He told me that he wanted to do something special for the college during my presidency. He kept his word and made a generous donation to the college.
The college thought it fit to recognise the invaluable services rendered by Dr. Perera, and renamed the ‘College of Anaesthesiologists Oration’ as ‘the Dr. B.S. Perera Oration’. The first oration was delivered by Dr. Chandra Rodrigo in 1999 in conjunction with the Annual Scientific Sessions of the College. At this inaugural oration, we were treated to a slide show illustrating Dr. Perera’s many and varied talents and achievements. Of them, the most memorable was a photograph, taken during the Law-Medical Cricket Match, showing Dr. Perera in fancy dress as Carmen Miranda, showing off long shapely legs, and sitting on the lap of Sir Ivor Jennings, who was the Vice Chancellor of the University at the time!

His demise on October 10, 2013, marks the end of an era, he being the last of a breed of doctors who were considered to be giants of respectability, and were revered, and loved. Farewell beloved Sir! Though you are no longer with us in the flesh, memories of what you were and what you taught us will continue to inspire and influence our lives.
May You Rest in Peace!

Dr. Suriyakanthie Amarasekera

Her life was brief but beautiful

Kalindi Wijetunge

The old adage, ‘the good die young’, rang in my ears as I heard with shock of Kalindi’s death. She was one of those golden girls, richly endowed with ‘joie de vivre’, love, and a radiant smile which glowed from within.
Outward beauty and the beauty of the soul were both hers in abundance. A devoted daughter, wife and mother, she has left her mother Kamini, her husband and two sons devastated by the irreparable void created by her tragic demise, so early in life. She had been to see me just a few days before her death, to invite me to their Xmas Market, which I have not failed to attend, ever since I first met her and her mother. Each year as the end of the year approached, she came to see me to personally hand over the invitation.
When I think back, I wonder if I had included her as one of the youngest personalities, in my book ‘Fifty is Company’, because of a sixth sense that she would not be with us for long. As mothers, we all have our dreams, that our children would follow our footsteps in one way or another. Kamini was fortunate that not only did Kalindi follow her footsteps in the creative talent she possessed; but was her right hand in her classes in needlecraft and Interior décor, and the dynamic force behind every exhibition.

The mother and daughter were an inseparable couple and had a deep and symbiotic relationship. Working together, teaching together, passing on their talent and knowledge to others so that it would enable their pupils to enhance their lives; all this joint effort on their part had forged an unbreakable bond between them, till the cruel hand of death took Kalindi away. Although an only child, Kalindi was refreshingly unspoilt and was constantly reaching out to others, particularly those in need in love and care. Her parents, Kamini and the late Harold, although their respective worlds revolved round her, had given her the right upbringing. She was unselfish, practical and down to earth, didn’t live in a dream world with her head in the clouds. The beauty or mystery of life is not about arriving at answers, but in the process of seeking it.

Another link between Kalindi and me was that we were both past pupils of Bishop’s College, Colombo. She had even visited the Sisters of St Margaret who founded Bishop’s College at their convent at East Grinstead, although they had left Bishop’s College, long before she entered its hallowed portals. I think the fact she was a Bishopian had influenced Kalindi in her short life, helped her to face both ‘triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same’.

Kalindi had a wide network of friends, built up from among pupils to whom she and Kamini passed on their talent. She thought of her talent as a kind of therapy too. Apart from her exceptional good looks, Kalindi was a seriously insightful, and emotionally sensitive person. I’m so thankful that she was blessed with a most supportive husband and a happy marriage which underpins and is the base of life.

I shall miss you, Kalindi, your visits, your lovely smile and cheerful voice over the phone, which were like a welcome burst of sunshine on a dull day. My prayers will always be for her mother, husband and children as I grieve with them for a wonderful irreplaceable person. We must thank God that we had the joy of her presence, although all too brief with us; the memories of which, will never fade away.

Ilica Malkanthi Karunaratne

He lived a blessed life

Lalith Wiratunga

He heard his Saviour’s call,
Come Home, Come Home.
He responded with alacrity,
Shuffled off his mortal coil
At the feet of a wife and son, he deeply loved, and
Took flight to meet his Maker,
Leaving us confused, bewildered, and immensely sad.
But, should we be sad?
He had enjoyed the respect of his peers,
Had lived a good, productive and happy life,
Been spared the pain of illness, frailties of old age, and
Had in a flash,
Moved to greener pastures.
Lalith had indeed been truly blessed!

Nihal Wiratunga

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