My years as a "vampire" in the Central Blood Bank, Colombo



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The old blood bank at the General Hospital


by Dr. Nihal (ND) Amerasekera


The year was 1970. It was an ominous year. President Nixon protracted the hugely unpopular Vietnam war. The teenage heart throbs and ever popular Beatles disbanded. The charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser passed away. Our country was in economic decline and our coffers were empty. Political unrest loomed in the horizon. This caused great anguish and brought the middle classes and the rural folk to their knees. On a personal level, my professional and private life was in turmoil and 1970 became my annus horribilis.


I remember as if it were yesterday walking into the Central Blood Bank (CBB) in Colombo to accept my job as Medical Officer. It looked so pristine painted in brilliant white. National Blood Transfusion Service was moved to this site in 1960. Its newly refurbished façade hid the remains of a charming old house which stood there since the creation of the General Hospital, Colombo (GHC) in 1864 by the Governor, Henry George Ward.


Dr. Nandrani de  Zoysa welcomed me warmly  and showed me the ropes and the rota. It wasn’t an onerous regime. After a month’s training and fine tuning, I was to be a part of a happy band of doctors serving a huge mass of patients in the vast expanse of the GHC.


The Superintendent of the National Blood Transfusion Service, Dr Percy Goonewardene, had his office in the Central Blood Bank. He managed the service with remarkable efficiency. His planning, organization and attention to detail made complications in blood transfusions a rarity. He ran the service with an iron fist but stood by the doctors under him. He never interfered with the day to day running of the unit and only stepped in to sort out problems. Dr de Zoysa was the Senior Medical Officer, the matriarch. She remained our spokesperson and conduit to take our woes and worries to the boss.  She represented us well with friendly kindness. I am also grateful for her help, understanding and courtesy shown to me during a difficult time in my life.


There were several from my batch at the CBB and in the transfusion service. Vedavanam who was a bachelor then was my constant companion. He had the time to join me in the evenings. I cannot think of a more helpful and considerate colleague. Asoka Wijeyekoon was great company and we often went on official travels together. One that I will always remember is staying at the Nikaweratiya Rest House by the ancient tank and having a drink together in the evening putting the world to right. From a nearby hut we heard a song being sung "Oya thamai bamba ketu ekkana". After the arrack, it sounded like a choir of angels. Bernice de Silva, Sydney Seneviratne and Razaque Ahamath were with us briefly. I am still in contact with MGS Karunanayake who was our senior. 


The Central Blood Bank then became the centre of my universe.  I accepted its quirks, idiosyncrasies and oddities as a part of working life. We were in the main, a fiercely united bunch of doctors. Although these posts were generally accepted as dead end jobs, its attraction was the luxury of being in Colombo. Since schooldays, I’ve been a city slicker and this fitted in well with my psyche. I free wheeled endlessly enjoying the company of friends, visiting the cinema and being a pillar of the Health Department Sports Club. The Club was a magnet for health workers who loved a drink and a chat in the evenings and I was never short of company.


The Blood Transfusion Service was a huge organisation. The Nurses, Public Health Inspectors, Medical Laboratory Technicians, Attendants, drivers and Labourers propped up the service with tremendous loyalty and efficiency. Travelling the length and breadth of the country collecting blood, was a task and a responsibility we all had to accept. Some were reluctant travellers, but I loved it. I owned a rugged and reliable 1954 VW Beetle, a masterpiece of German engineering. It never let me down as I crisscrossed the length and breadth of the country for the Blood Bank.


This official travel gave me the opportunity to get away from my personal travails and see the country at government expense. The travelling team included a medical officer who carried the money for the donors and supervised the programme, a Public Health Inspector to speak to the people and appeal to their conscience to donate blood and several attendants and labourers to assist in the collection of blood. Two vans accompanied us. One was the refrigerator van and the other carried the staff and equipment.


We travelled to all the festivals including Kataragama, Dondra, Anuradhapura, Mihintale and Polonnaruwa. We were in Nuwara Eliya, Bandarawela and Diyatalawa at the height of the holiday season. Temples, churches and schools became our blood donation centres. I often stayed in Rest Houses. In the evenings, the team often got together for a chat and a drink by a lake or a river or the beach. The attendants and labourers had a tremendous sense of humour and often had me in stitches. Among them there were comedians, storytellers, actors and singers. We drank and laughed so much. They sang songs from the Sinhala films using tin pots for their tabla. I have such vivid and fond memories of those happy times singing in the stillness of a moonlit night on the banks of the Minneriya Tank.


There was a time when I got dead drunk at one of these events with several thousand rupees of donors’ money in my pockets. The team looked after and cared for me and not a cent was lost. I value immensely their loyalty and friendship and remember each one of them with much affection. Despite the passage of years, as I write these memories, I can see their smiling faces and feel the warmth of their goodwill.


The location of the Central Blood Bank was priceless. We had a wonderful view of all those who entered or left through the Kynsey road gate of the GHC. There was an endless stream of nurses, lady medical students and visitors passing through the gates of the hospital. We were often mesmerised by the glitz and the glamour that paraded before us. The proximity to the Medical Faculty with all its facilities was a great blessing. The tea never tasted better than in the smoke filled room of the Faculty canteen.


We worked in shifts, morning evening and night. The doctor on night duty slept in the old block at the rear. Although there were many intriguing stories of apparitions and ghosts I never saw or heard anything in all those four years. The morning shift was busy doing the cross-matching prepared for us by the technicians. Until the racks of test tubes were ready for microscopy, there was an hour or so of friendly banter and bonding with an exchange of racy hospital gossip.


I must pay tribute to the blood donors without whom there will not be a blood bank. Many donate out of the goodness of their heart. Some donate as the blood bank insists they donate if they wish to receive blood for their kith and kin. Others give blood for the money they receive. I presume the situation hasn’t changed since my time, except no money is paid. They all received a little red book as a token of our appreciation.


Much of those memories are lost in the fog of time. It may have been in 1971 when it was announced that the MRCP Part I will be held for the first time in Colombo the following year. I was one of the few male doctors in my medical school year who never wanted to go abroad. Since my childhood, I was always aware of the limitations of chasing money.  My ambition was to be a DMO in some distant town, far from the madding crowd. My dreams were dashed when the  Department of Health, in its wisdom, decided to send me to the CBB. This strange quirk of fate in retrospect was indeed a Godsend. Hence my firm and unwavering belief in the awesome force of destiny.


Time passed relentlessly as I enjoyed the excesses of the "la dolce vita". At least for the moment, this heady bohemian lifestyle suited me well. Living with my parents, I was never short of good advice. I saw my friends climbing the ladder and progress in the profession. This gave me great inspiration.  I was also getting disenchanted and weary of the indolent and lazy life I led. After much deliberation, the decision was taken to prepare for the MRCP. I realised this was a huge commitment. At first giving up the easy life was painful and challenging. The Medical Faculty library was a great help as were my doctor friends who were attempting the same exam. After my reckless existence, I needed more encouragement than most.


The endless struggle with long days and late nights finally paid off.  To my great surprise, I was successful in the examination. This gave me a glimpse of a possible future career. By 1974 my personal troubles had ended and I was ready to leave the country. I recall most vividly the long hours and the agonising discussions I’ve had with friends of the rights and wrongs of leaving my homeland. The thought of leaving behind my aging parents and family was painful in the extreme and left me in a wilderness of confusion. By now I had done seven years of service for the Department of Health and was free to leave. In the end I decided to move to London to complete the MRCP. Arranging flights wasn’t an easy task then. The heartache and the sleepless nights that followed haunt me still.


Blood transfusion work and haematology were never my passion. I couldn’t see myself looking through a microscope for the rest of my life. After the examination, I started to search for my calling and niche in life. My well honed antennae drew me into a career in Radiology which was rapidly expanding with the advent of computer technology. This required another five years of training and further examinations. To borrow the cliché, I was in the right place at the right time.


On my many visits to Sri Lanka, I always went to see the old Central Blood Bank. The ravages of time took its toll on the bricks and mortar and the wonderful people who worked there. Many retired and others moved on. Dr Percy Goonewardene died in 1975 which was a sad loss for the National Blood Transfusion Service. I have often wiped a tear hearing of the demise of the staff who enriched my life all those years ago. It breaks my heart to know that of the PHI’s, attendants, labourers and drivers, none of them are alive today.


I have fond memories and a tremendous affection for the CBB. It brought happiness to my life when none existed. I made friendship that lasted a lifetime. Those four years changed my life for the better, as I look back with so much affection. The CBB has lost its name and has moved to Narahenpita and none of the old staff work on that site anymore. In my mind’s eye, it will always remain where it was. Voices and laughter must still echo in the ether of what remains of that grand edifice which once was the CBB. The enchantment of those years in that great institution will remain with me forever. May the Blood Transfusion Centre in its new surroundings be a great success.


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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