Longing and Belonging series: Returning lives, rebuilding limbs

Dr. Panagamuwa’s workshop was tucked away down a corridor of the Mannar Hospital in the north west of Sri Lanka. When I arrived, the doctor, dressed in his distinctive green theatre overalls, was rushing around making sure his patients were attended to. One of the patients was Mary, a young Tamil woman whose leg had been amputated following a landmine explosion. I watched Dr. Panagamuwa check over the adjustments he had made to her new artificial limb. He spoke to her in Tamil and when he got stuck with a word or phrase, his young assistant would step in to help communicate. “I didn’t think he was a doctor,” Mary told me afterwards. “He’s not like a normal doctor.” She was in a hurry to catch the last bus home, much easier now with her new leg.

Together with both Tamil and Sinhalese doctors from England, Dr. Panagamuwa started the Meththa Foundation, a charity would focus on using his highly specialised skills. Meththa started small, raising funds through house parties, cricket matches and dinner dances. In July 2009, Dr Panagamuwa visited Mannar and having seen the number of amputees lining the corridors of the hospital he decided to set up his workshop. “War means injuries,” he told me and said that as long as there was a need he would continue to work in Mannar.

Dr. Panagamuwa started off as a surgeon in Sri Lanka, but after the JVP insurrection of 1989 he decided to settle in England with his wife and two children. “When I left Sri Lanka, apart from the new discipline, one of the first things I noticed there was the wastage of perfectly good components.” Because of regulations in England prohibiting their reuse, expensive components had been discarded. “These rules benefitted Sri Lanka,” he told me and managed to adapt them for patients’ needs here.

Dr. Panagamuwa’s workshop was divided into two compartments. In the front portion he attended to the patients and at the back, his team of young technicians worked at noisy machines, drilling holes into new artificial limbs for amputees. One thing that struck me as I watched Dr. Panagamuwa working was that unless patients voluntarily told him how they had lost their limbs, he didn’t probe into the causes. “What does it matter how the patient got injured from a clinical point of view?” he said. “We try to get them to a point where their disability is no longer the central part of their life. We want that to be behind them.” If patients did want to talk about what had happened to them he listened and tried to find out how best he could help get them walking again. “I want to treat them the same way we treat people in England. With the same ethos. Listening to people, being by their side. I tell them, Try this and see. If you don’t like it, we will give you another choice“.

Dr. Panagamuwa understood how his decision to set up a base in Mannar could be perceived by some members of the diaspora. The question why a Sinhalese doctor is working in Mannar? is one he knew was being asked by some not only from the Tamil diaspora, but also the Sinhalese community. Having spent a few days with Dr. Panagamuwa in Mannar and traveling with his team to Pooneryn, the answer was plain: because there was a need. “Some of the younger people are calling me uncle now,” he told me, “and that is the highest tribute that they can pay me”.

Editors note: For an overview of the Longing and Belonging series and trailer, please click Longing and belonging series: Diaspora shorts. Also see The science of planning in Jaffna and From London to Jaffna for the first time.

  • Priyanthi Devika Dissanayake

    I am so proud of you mama, you are blessed by thousands of people. The simple humbleness of your family is great admiration and such an example for all of us. Love you, Dr mama, Sumi nanda and mallies & the families.
    We wish to see you all one day here, other end of the world.
    Devika duwa from Auckland. NZ

  • Haren J

    I am very proud of Dr. Paranagamuwa who happens to be my distant great uncle. He correctly says that these are “my people”. Race only perpetuates division and hated. I hope more Sri Lankans from all backgrounds come to help my fellow people to get back on their feet(literally and metaphorically). I hope to visit SL hopefully next year and help some kids from Vavuniya who were very eager to learn the last time I visited them.

    Hope and peace for a better tomorrow!

    Haren
    Mountain View, CA

    • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

      Very glad you got to see this, and thanks for writing in.

  • http://WWW.bses.org.au Jayampathi Basnayake

    My dearest Aiya (loku aiya)
    We all are proud of you, what you are doing today is exactly what our beloved amma, and appachchi wanted us to do. They wanted us to be doctors without setting boundaries, servants to the society with no credits in returns, teachers to the vulnerable society with no expectation of honor or respect, person who can stand for justice and truth with no anxiety to talk and act. You have achieved all those 4 goals with merit. We wish you a good health with all blessings from Triple Gem!
    Loving,
    Sudu Malli

  • Arosha Bandara

    I have found by all three of these short films on ‘Longing and Belonging’ to be very inspiring but have to say that ‘Returning Lives, Rebuilding Limbs’ has been the best of the lot. Perhaps knowing Dr. Panagamuwa (or ‘Pana Uncle’ as we have always called him) in person is part of it, but I think the bigger factor is that the example set by Dr. Panagamuwa shows how all Sri Lankans need to respond to the challenge of reconciliation – by making concrete steps to reach out and make a positive impact on the lives of our brethren across ethnic, class or caste divides. Of course not all of us are able to make a direct contribution in the way that Dr. Panagamuwa and his colleagues are doing, but we can certainly do our part to support this work both materially and spiritually.

    Pana Uncle, we are all very proud of the wonderful work you are doing. I wish you good health and long life.

    Kannan Arunasalam, thank you for making these films that highlight the positive contributions of the diaspora. I have enjoyed your iam.lk montages as well and hope you are able continue telling these wonderful stories.

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Dr. Panagamuwa,
    Thank you. You have joined many from various background to help people in distress. Thank you especially for volunteering and helping the people who have lost much. Your very act is a comfort to them to cope with the trauma they went through. You are paving a concrete and direct action path for civilians to take the first look towards reconciliation. As you know that path is one of many. They are long, dark and full of thorns, devils, thunder and lightning. But you are walking in front on one path with the light with no other motive than to heal the body and mind of those who are in need of your compassion. Hope many other civilians from all communities will join you.
    Thank you Kannan Arunasalam for your excellent presentation of glimpses of the thoughts and actions of people living and visiting the North.

  • Morgan Jurado

    Dear Kannan
    thank you for this post, Dr Panagamuwa, thank you, you are an example, you are a great human being, you are the real Buddhist, you are great hero with real patriotism people have to learn things from you, you deserve a recognition I wish you get something big one day tough you do work for those.

  • Morgan Jurado

    I am sorry for my mistake , here is the corrected version
    Dear Kannan
    thank you for this post, Dr Panagamuwa, thank you, you are an example, you are a great human being, you are the real Buddhist, you are great hero with real patriotism people have to learn things from you, you deserve a recognition I wish you get something big one day though you don’t work for those.

  • Anjali

    Kannan–this is amazing. Great job.

    Dr. Panagamuwa, you renew my faith in humanity. Your interview had me in tears. Thank you for what you are doing.

  • Piranha

    What an amazing human being. Selfless and undiscriminating service to the needy. The politicians from both sides of the ethnic divide should learn what is service to the people really means from this saint of a man.He is practicing what his religion preached. May all the gods bless him.

  • hasthi

    It is indeed heart warming to read of such great men who are less heard of and are almost unseen. The fact we rarely get to know of great people such as Dr Panagamuwa is the misfortune of the nation. 30 years back, in the Colombo General Hospital was a great doctor – Prof. Dr. Navaratnam (if I remember correctly) who did not do any channel practice but whole heartedly devoted his time to teaching and treating (I came to know of him because my father happened to be admitted to his ward).

    These types of great men do not seek publicity because their only devotion is to service. But we, not knowing and not appreciating such goodness look at people with eyes coloured by political, religious and other divisions created by people with vested interest and drag humanity to low ends.