Surgeon Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke(Left) pictured with Chathushika and his bride
Those who were adults during the late nineteen eighties (1989 to be specific) are sure to smell of those bloody years. Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke also belongs to that era. The Daily Mirror met this person- a surgeon- for an interview. He is a person who values his patients more than anything else. The Daily Mirror sat with him one evening and he walked us through 1989, recalling his experiences, lessons, and the joys of healing; most importantly recalling the bomb explosion that triggered off in Gampaha Town during that turbulent year.
For the benefit of non-Sri Lankan readers this writer wishes to put on paper the timeline of events that unfolded in Sri Lanka during that era. In North-East in July 1983, the civil war of Sri Lanka was born and in 1987, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was in the process of initiating an insurrection. Due to the signing of the Indian-initiated Peace–Accord, the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) entered Sri Lanka, and the insurrection/revolt intensified.
Moving back to the protagonist of our story, Dr. Goonetilleke recalled that during this period a bomb explosion had taken place in Gampaha, where the insurgents were very active.
It was 9.40 am on September 19, 1989. A time bomb had been in a truck parked outside the Gampaha Police
Chathushika's father at his bedside in hospital
Station. The blast ripped through the station’s perimeter wall and the building’s side. The vehicle which carried the bomb was a wreck. There were two vehicles on the road onto the side of the explosion; one was a bullock cart, and the other was an Austin Cambridge car. As many as 20 people were injured as result of the blast; the casualties included the driver of the Austin Cambridge and his three-year-old son. The shutters had been open, and the wave created by the blast had ripped the structure of the moving car. The victims were rushed to hospital and the surgical ward was packed with people. “On that fateful day, I was in my ward in the Gampaha Hospital and I heard a thundering sound. The experience I gained on the war front suggested in no uncertain terms that it was the sound of a bomb and I immediately alerted the ward to get ready to attend to casualties. The explosion occurred about 400 metres away from the hospital,” he recalled.
“The Police Station in the Gampaha Town was situated at the junction close to four roads and was surrounded by many shops with the District Courts a stone’s throw away. The blast rocked the court premises nearby and the court proceedings came to an abrupt halt. The District Judge was in a state of shock. The stores nearby pulled up their shutters in panic while the town’s residents ran helter-skelter to flee the scene. All this happened during the morning rush hour. There was a massive chaos since no one had ever experienced such a circumstance before. I recall with sadness how the bull, who pulled the cart, was lying down with his injured eye protruding. The carter passed away instantly,” Dr. Goonetilleke remembered.
Padmini Rajapakshe, the mother of the boy who was injured inside the Austin Cambridge car, spoke to the Daily Mirror 33 years after the Gampaha Explosion. She said “Chuti Putha (Chathushika) had the habit of sitting in the passenger seat and ‘hanging on’ to his father who was driving because in doing so he believed that he was also driving. The same thing happened on that fatal day. My husband was unconscious, and chuti putha had a wooden spike (shrapnel) going through the right side of the head, sticking out like a horn, but he was conscious. It is bone-chilling to recall the day,” said Rajapakshe. Dr. Goonetilleke, revisiting the day, said, “We did not have enough time to prepare for the emergency, despite the fact that I had warned the ward personnel to be prepared to treat victims. The ward quickly became crowded with patients, residents of the community, police officers, politicians, journalists and others. My first goal was to take care of the patients, but crowd control had to come first during this situation.
As many as 20 people were injured as result of the blast; the casualties included the driver of the Austin Cambridge and his three-year-old son
Therefore, I requested the help of the police and they intervened to help manage the crowd. While all this was happening some patients were screaming in anguish, while others were sobbing out of dread for their lives. But my experience had taught me that those who get hysterical are the less damaged,” he said.
“The father inside the Austin Cambridge was unconscious, and the son was semi-conscious. What was more serious was that he had a head injury – a fracture of the skull with a piece of wood penetrating through and most probably damaging the brain, but producing any neurological signs. The son’s injury was more serious because there was a compound fracture of the skull with penetration of the skull by a piece of wood that was most probably going into the brain and required urgent surgery,” Dr. Goonetilleke recalled.
Mrs. Rajapakshe, sporting a brilliant smile, said that both her children wanted to become doctors after seeing the miraculous service offered by Dr. Goonetilleke. “My son does not remember exactly what had happened because he was three years old then, but his sister Sammani remembers the service rendered by Dr. Goonetilleke. When she was a child, she used to have a toy stethoscope, and while she was playing, she attributed herself to Dr Goonetilleke and told her toy patients, “Do not play around Dr Gamini wants to treat you,” said Mrs. Rajapakshe, negotiating tears of joy and disclosing that her daughter is a doctor today.
Mrs. Rajapakshe also added that Dr. Goonetilleke’s wife, Shalendra, was not only a blessing to Dr. Goonetilleke, but a blessing to his patients as well. “My husband had to take medical treatment for a few months until he recovered and Dr. Goonetilleke did everything within his capacity. Once in three months we consulted Dr. Goonetilleke regarding our son. While we were in hospital, Shalendra used to come and pray for both my son and husband. In fact my son called her “God Bless.” He believed that it was her name. Up until now, we believe that all these prayers turned out to be a blessing and I have my family thanks to Dr. Goonetilleke and his spouse,” said Mrs. Rajapakshe.
Dr. Goonetilleke said that, unfortunately, Chathushika could not realise the dream of becoming a doctor, but he had graduated in Information technology and by now has progressed extremely well in that field. After witnessing a “medical miracle,” his sister, who was four years then, was determined to be a doctor and has achieved her objective with the support of her parents. “I am so glad that I was a source of inspiration to them,” said Dr. Goonetilleke.
The best part of that story is when we hear that the boy who was miraculously saved back then- at the age of three-saw his wedding being attended to by this doctor who saved his life; the latter playing the role of the attesting witness at the registration of the marriage. “A patient means a beating heart and it carries life. I do whatever is within my hands to keep a heart beating. I saved this boy’s life just like with any other patient. But we developed an everlasting family relationship and they visit me every year; especially for Christmas. There is a saying that a marriage is a man’s second birth. I saved his life and I send my best wishes for his second birth as well,” Dr. Goonetilleke said sporting a humble smile.
The car in which Chathushika was driven in after the blast