A heart-rending story of an old doctor living in an abandoned storeroom

Forgotten and lost in life: Only dogs and cats to keep her company


The Dehiattakanda Hospital medical practitioners with Dr. Ranjani Gunawardena

Story and pics by W. G. S. S. Ranatunga in Dehiattakandiya

A group of medical practitioners attached to the Dehiattakandiya Hospital last week visited the first MBBS doctor appointed to the Mahaweil ‘C’ Zone decades ago.

A courtesy call on a retired senior colleague wouldn’t have generally made news, but what’s extraordinary in this case is that Dr. Pathiranalage Vinitha Ranjani Gunawardena now lives in the dilapidated abandoned structure, which served as the storeroom of the Mahaweli office at Cadjuwatte.

The area is dense, elephant-infested jungle. One has to travel 12 km on the Dehiattakandiya-Aralaganwila Road to reach Cadjuwatte near Dimbulagala. The doorless, run-down old storeroom the 81-year-old doctor occupies is on the verge of collapse. As we approached, the frail figure emerged followed by an army of dogs and cats.

As the canines barked and snarled at the strangers, the grand old lady commanded in English that the animals keep quiet as "we are friends". And they all fell at her feet, obeyed the order and fell silent.

With a toothless grin, the good old lady welcomed us to her humble abode. Her only worldly possessions were a plank bed, and some wooden chairs on which the dogs perched. As the cats continued to eye us suspiciously, we moved around the tiny structure as the octogenarian beamed "these animals are my biggest treasure".

At the time she joined the Mahaveli office in the ‘C’ Zone as a medical officer, the malaria threat was claiming a heavy toll. Her appointment was initially for three years, but she continued to serve the people of the area for decades. Such was her deep commitment and dedication towards the poor peasants.

"My father’s name was Hiralu Pathiranalage Gunawardena, a native of Gampaha, who worked as a chief clerk in the education department in Colombo during the time of the British. My mother was Leela Violet Perera. As it was convenient to travel to work, my father gave his property to his relatives and moved to the city. We lived in Colombo 7 and I attended C. M. S. Ladies College", she recalled.

"An incident I vividly remember was the assassination of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike as I was serving at the Colombo General Hospital as an intern at the time", Vinitha recounted. Later, she served at Lady Ridgeway and moved to the CMC as a medical officer.

She said that her grandmother’s visits to Mahiyangana and reading Martin Wickramasinghe’s novels, which focused on the beauty and serenity of rustic life, influenced her decision to come to a village and serve poor peasants.

"I married Dr. Fernando, a dentist and as we didn’t have children of our own, adopted a relative’s child, who later married an engineer and now lives in Australia. My sister is also a doctor in the USA, while the other sister is married to an Indian doctor and lives there. My husband is no more. All these factors contributed towards my returning to this area to eke out an existence with bare necessities", she said.

She said her husband gave away all his properties to relatives, but there is now nobody to look after her in the winter of her life. "My son wanted me to join him in Australia, but I love my motherland. I used to visit critical patients in this area in the dead of night. There were no modern medical facilities then. Malaria patients used to queue up for treatment at dawn. I used to treat them late into the night".

She also recalled how she bought milk cows with her salary and gave them to the poor to earn an income. "Some of them are now wealthy, but I have only these dogs and cats to look after me. I like to listen to Bana, but I have no radio and this old storehouse has no electricity. I have sinned in my past birth and I am paying for them".

"People dump animals with disabilities here. I treat and feed them. How can I eat when they are starving? I don’t want Mahaweli lands. My only wish is that I have a decent place to spend the last days of my life. I don’t crave for comforts. They are useless as my end is near. I am already blind in one eye due to asbestos dust falling onto the bed I sleep on. I treated thousands during my career, but today there is nobody to give me even a contact lens", she lamented.

Nandawathie, a woman living a short distance away from the storeroom, visits the old doctor on a daily basis and helps her with the chores. She accompanies the old lady once a month to collect her pension. She had worked as a volunteer and accompanied the doctor on her visits to treat patients in interior villages in the region.

"I am eager to meet Minister Maithripala Sirisena, who I knew as a MP decades ago", the doctor said. "But, now I am a non-entity".

"Even the LTTE had tremendous respect for the doctor as she treated everybody equally. There was no religious or racial discrimination. She even visited Tamil villages in difficult terrain. Once the flag with a red cross put up on the vehicle had fallen. LTTE cadres picked it up and advised us not to travel without it strapped to the vehicle", Nandawathie recounted.


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