Prof GM Heennilame

Prof. Gankande Muhandiramge Heennilame, or Heeni as he was affectionately known, was a close and very dear friend through four extraordinarily exciting and sometimes perilous, but very productive, decades. As we write in appreciation of this unique man, poignant memories illuminate our minds. Prof Heennilame was the architect and creator of great institutions and productive programmes.

He was a model medical educationist, family physician and dermatologist. He proved to be both role - model, advisor and confidant to many of us, an embodiment of fearless courage and conviction and he achieved the near impossible.

Dr Heennilame was born in a village named Gannegama in Pelmadulla, on 16th November, 1921. A noteworthy if not amusing incident in early life occurred when he was kidnapped at the age of 3 years. For an unknown, but fortuitous reason, his kidnappers abandoned him in a scrubland near the parental home and was found alive and reasonably well. Fortunate indeed, for had he not survived, Sri Lankan and the medical community would have been the poorer over the past 60 years.

Heeni was educated at Seevali Vidyalaya in Ratnapura and later at Ananda College, Colombo.

In 1949, he qualified the MBBS with Honours from the University of Ceylon.

During the next seven years, he was a House Officer at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children and later District Medical Assistant (DMA) in each of the following hospitals: Dickoya, Maskeliya, Bogawantalawa, Pussellawa, Gampola and Lunawa, where he first met his future wife Beryl. Heeni was later appointed a Resident MO at Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital and yet later, Medical Officer of Health Bandarawela. His final appointment in the State sector was as Medical Officer in Dermatology, General Hospital, Colombo. This appointment radically influenced his future orientation in medical practice. He came under the tutelage of the gentle and soft - spoken Dr. S Chelvarajah, the sole (one and only) dermatologist in Ceylon in the 1950s. He influenced Heeni to take more interest in dermatology. It is noteworthy that the wide spectrum of postings which he had, came in good stead to widen his repertoire and ability to enable him to become a renowned and popular general practitioner, and, an eminent and much loved family physician with particular interest in dermatology. He played this role with abundant wisdom for more than half a century in his Clinic at Dean’s Road, Maradana, Colombo 10.

In 1956, Heeni resigned from State service and worked for two years at the (private) Grandpass Nursing Home, before commencing his own practice at Dean’s Road. Heeni had a wide and busy practice.

But Heeni remained a restless man. In 1956, he enrolled with the Independent Medical Practitioners’ Association (IMPA). The IMPA is the second oldest medical association in this country and the oldest national organisation of general medical practitioners in the world.

In 1959, Heeni was elected its Secretary and held this post for nineteen years. He was later Vice President.

There is an interesting story here. In the early eighties, Heeni was overwhelmed with work at the North Colombo Medical College. Dr. Peter Kannangara was the President of the IMPA at that time and I (DJA) was President Elect, an office which groomed the incoming President. But I decided that I should not take Office as President until Heeni had been President. Heeni kept delaying acceptance due to onerous duties at the private medical college as the Chairman of the Board of Management. As a result, the incumbent President continued in Office for 7 years. Heeni decided that his commitment to the North Colombo Medical College (NCMC) was a herculean task and stated inability to take Office as President of the IMPA. I decided too that if Heeni was not willing to take office, I should not either. So, by choice, neither Heeni nor I became President.

The greatest achievement of the IMPA, which came about in the early seventies, was the founding of the College of General Practitioners of Sri Lanka and later, its independent existence after incorporation by Parliament in 1974. Dr. G M Heennilame was a founding father of the CGPSL.

He was its third President, having served as Secretary for 6 years after incorporation. He took up this Office only after two active and productive senior general practitioners, Dr. M. P. M. Cooray and Dr. A. M. Fernando, who on his invitation, took Office as Presidents before him.

One of the great achievements of the College of General Practitioners was the creation of the NCMC in 1981, after less than 2 years after the appointment and hard work of the Project Implementation Committee. One of us (LR) vividly remembers a Sunday morning when I was woke up by Heeni to be requested to accompany him to the proposed site, granted by the State, for the proposed NCMC, on a pretty promontory above the Ragama General Hospital, for inspection of the site. I did it with pleasure but was taken aback to see that the dilapidated buildings, akin to the plantation estate lines a century before, were inhabited by goats and soiled with their dung. When I was asked for my comments, I said, "Heeni, I know what you will do with this archaeological site". The end product was a well designed modern private medical school, which proceeded to produce, with care and dedication, excellent doctors in lieu of goats. Dr Heennilame was the Creator and Chairman of the Board of Governors and Board of Management of the NCMC.

This was when the now wise and very mature CEO, Heeni, displayed his outstanding qualities in leadership. At times he prevailed like a dictator albeit with benevolence. It is a tribute to Heeni that at no time, during the vigorously active ten year existence of the NCMC, until it was vested in the State, did the Board of Governors ever have to take a majority vote on any problem or issue. On certain controversial issues, there was prolonged discussion and consensus was reached without division.

In his busy life, Prof. Heennilame held several offices, including:

* Chairman of the Board of Study in Family Medicine of the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, for over 2 decades. Here he spearheaded the establishment of the historic Diploma in Family (DFM) Course and Examination. He was coordinator for dermatology for several years and was a lecturer on this course for over 2 decades

* an Examiner at the DFM Examination for many years and also Examiner on six occasions for the DFM Examination held in India

* a clinical trainer in Family Medicine for the DFM and also the undergraduates of University of Kelaniya

* Member of the University Grants Commission for 3 years

* Vice President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association

* Member of the Health Council for over 20 years

Prof. G. M. Heennilame was a devout Buddhist who was involved with Buddhist temples and Buddhist institutions overseas, such as the Sri Lanka Ramanya Nikaya in Sravasti, India and the Berlin Vihara in Germany. Barely 2 months before his demise, he involved himself with yet another temple in India.

He was married to and shared with Beryl for over 50 years and she was a pillar of strength to him in all his activities. She predeceased him by two years. They have left 3 sons, Dr. Upali, a surgeon in the United Kingdom, Dr. Amal, who is attached to the Naval Hospital in Colombo and Cancer Hospital, Maharagama and Anura, who retired from the Sri Lanka Air Force after injuries, now Human Relations Officer at Stafford Engineers.

The two of us were close friends of beloved Heeni and we paraphrase T S Eliot: "This and such were" Heennilame’s ways. Heeni never failed to say thank you for every little things anyone did for him. Another admirable quality in Heeni’s conduct was that he always apologized when he perceived that he had offended someone who had been justifiably reprimanded by him. I (DJA) experienced some of these reprimands and apologies. These qualities endeared Heeni to many.

Prof. Heennilame was a caring guide, philosopher and friend to all of us. A legendary figure in the Sri Lankan medical scene, Dr. C.G. Uragoda has remarked "Dr. Heennilame was a GREAT man."There are literally many thousand colleagues, contemporaries and grateful patients who will agree that Dr. Heennilame was truly a GREAT MAN WITH GREAT VISION, who journeyed through life fruitfully, with GREAT distinction.

Heeni departed on 12th January, 2009.

Dennis J. Aloysius and Lakshman Ranasinghe

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