June 14, 2019

From hard water to hope

The ‘hard’ water in the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka, is high in calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. This, and the hot, humid weather, increases the risk of urinary tract ailments among the local population, resulting in a significant number of such admissions to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital.

The Jaffna Teaching Hospital provides tertiary care to more than one million people, and gets referrals from hospitals in all five districts in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It functioned for most parts of the bitter civil war as a sanctuary for the people living in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

It is also where Dr Sudheshan Sundaralingam, Urologist at Northern Health, learnt his surgical skills between 1990 and 1998.

“That part of the country was ravaged by war for almost thirty years. The hospital was doing a great job with very primitive facilities,” says Sudheshan.

But that was a long time ago, and Sudheshan could be forgiven for wanting to put it all behind him. He, like a lot of other skilled and accomplished Sri Lankan’s, left for better prospects.

He first came to Northern Health on a fellowship in 2007 for two years. On his return, he worked as a urologist in the south of Sri Lanka, before taking up an offer from Northern Health and migrating to Australia in 2010.

“My association with the Northern goes back a long way,” says Sudheshan. Yet, Sudheshan can’t put his past behind him.

“We have come over here, but that doesn’t mean we have forgotten our land,” says Sudheshan.

In 2017, the Jaffna Medical Faculty Overseas Alumni Australia Chapter (of which he is the past president), with the assistance of the Australian Medical Aid Foundation and funding from the government, helped build a Laparoscopic Urology Unit at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital.

“I have been visiting every year since, to upskill the urologists at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital in Laparoscopic Urology. The urologists there are very well trained in open and endoscopic urology, but haven’t had the facilities to practice laparoscopic surgery.”

In 2018, Owen Niall, the Head of Urology here at Northern Health, joined Sudheshan in a 10 day visit both in the north and south of Sri Lanka, teaching and conducting laparoscopic operations.

One memorable meeting was with his former boss, Dr Anuruddha Abeygunasekara, a senior urologist in Sri Lanka, from his time at the Galle Teaching Hospital in the south of Sri Lanka.

“I was his very first Senior Urology Registrar and was trained by him in the basics of urology. The training was during a time of heightened communal tension. On top of training me, he looked after me like his own child,” says Sudheshan.

“I was very proud and privileged to go back and work with him and share knowledge.”

Sudheshan and Owen spent two days with Anuruddha in the capital, Colombo, teaching and operating on patients during their week in Sri Lanka.

From there, they travelled north to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital and conducted laparoscopic surgical workshops there. Subsequent to this visit, they invited the urologist from the Jaffna Teaching Hospital for a short observer fellowship, both to the Northern and St Vincent’s Hospital to observe laparoscopic cases.

“I have spoken to other urologists at Northern Health and they are very willing to come over with me and help train the urologists there in advanced laparoscopic urology. The hospital is also very supportive of bringing doctors from there for advanced training.”

As part of this program, they are now preparing to welcome a junior urologist from there to Northern Hospital for a twelve-month fellowship, specialising in Laparoscopic Urology.

“I am so thankful to Northern Health and my department for supporting this. I must also thank Dr Wanda Stelmach and Dr Michael Kirk for helping to organise this,” says Sudheshan.

“I think it is very vital for that community as they are just coming out of a war. We are helping them, at the same time we have learned a lot from their surgical experience.”

Featured image (left to right): Theatre Technician, Jaffna Teaching Hospital (JTH), Theatre Nurse, JTH, Dr Satheesan Balasubramanium Urologist, JTH, Owen Niall Urologist, Northern Hospital, Scrub Nurse, JTH, Theatre Technician, JTH

Pictured above: Dr Anuruddha Abeygunasekara (seated) with Sudeshan