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Dr Gamini Goonetilleke's brilliant book "In the Line of Duty" reviewed - A book that must be read

Reviewed by Nanda Pethiyagoda (This reveiw first appeared in the Sunday Times)


With the armed forces fast penetrating LTTE held areas in the north and the number of war casualties and deaths increasing by the day on both sides, one takes up Dr Gamini Goonetilleke's book as a source of comfort that those injured will hopefully be well looked after.

The book I refer to is In the Line of Duty: life and times of a surgeon in war and peace. In it Dr Gamini Goonetilleke writes autobiographically about his life as a surgeon, with much narrative time and book space given to his years in Polonnaruwa: 1982 to1988 - six years and two months. He was in the thick of the war, so to speak, and his contribution to saving lives and making as comfortable as possible through surgery injured fighters, is immense.

Instead of detailing what's in the book since you can easily get to know yourself what he writes by buying or borrowing a copy - (published by Unigraphics (Pvte) Ltd with ISBN 978-955-619-014-4), I will briefly convey my impressions of the doctor and his work.

The most striking and significant impression that was formed very early in my reading is that here is a humane doctor who puts his patients' care before consideration of his convenience and comfort or his family's; who is dedicated and works with no consideration of time nor fatigue to himself when circumstances demand extra-work. And being a doctor in Polonnaruwa then, with comparatively poor medical facilities and in the midst of a raging war, his personality and dedication were tested through brimstone and fire and he emerged a true healer and a great comfort to those in dire need of medical attention and a word or act of concern.

We suppose he was keeping the Hippocratic Oath he had taken before embarking on his mission of healing, but more than that he worked according to his principles and standards of behaviour. He emerges a colossus in the medical profession. We wish those doctors of the GMOA who strike work and are rough and impatient with their patients, would read this book and strive to emulate Dr Goonetilleke. The young have much to learn from their seniors, in this instance not only medical and surgical knowledge but norms of proper practice and being a good doctor. As the doctor himself says in his Preface: "The readiness to be available for service when required, especially to relieve human suffering in the war-torn area, is truly a test of the human spirit."

Dr Goonetilleke has been a pioneer in surgery and innovated new methods and, taking calculated risks, cured people of strange afflictions, such as the girl who was in a mental and emotional state that induced her to eat her own hair so that ultimately it was suffocating her abdominally.

The people who came under his care, mostly the underprivileged and disadvantaged rural folk, appreciated him and showed gratitude to him and lifelong allegiance.

When he writes of the war, the attack of the LTTE on threatened villages, strange maladies and stark injuries, it makes for heavy reading. The many pictures add to the gravity of what one reads. He issues a word of caution at the end of his Preface that "some of the pictures displayed may be gruesome and revolting. This could not be avoided as it was my intention to give the reader a true picture of these conditions." It most definitely causes pain and even disgust (unpardonable) in seeing the pictures. So all the reader has to do is flick pages with pictures, reading only the text and keeping the eyes averted from the pictures.

The doctor lays himself open to being faulted here. He could be accused of 'making capital of human suffering for the purpose of his publication/s.' But he used the pictures in his lectures here and abroad and his medical papers which needed illustration. The end result is what is important - input to progress in surgery, extent of possible injury in the war zone and 'before and after' pictures to prove methods adopted, surgery mostly, were correct.

So the criticism of exploiting injured and ill persons by photographing them holds no water. Many a picture is without the face being shown. We are also sure a doctor of his humanity and concern would first have got permission from the ill person or a relative before he used his camera. Even otherwise, in the name of the advancement of surgery and healing; and to impress upon others the grievous gravity of war, the pictures are justified.

The book is not entirely medical and about surgery and thus heavy and soul-searing. He writes lightly about a visit to Jaffna ; he gives humane insights to overcoming religious and racial prejudice - he attended on many an injured LTTE cadre; and he writes about his later career. Chapter 9 is titled President of the College of Surgeons and other events. Included are newspaper clippings such as 'Consultant Surgeon makes impassioned plea to ban use of anti-personell mines.' He includes tributes he has received from his medical students, and quotations from various sources which humanize the book to match the man who figures in it - a great and good human being.

Two Forewords preface the book: one by the Most Rev. Dr Oswald Gomis and the other by Dr P R Anthonis. Excerpts from reviews of the book are printed on the back cover.

These all are justifiably complimentary. One says: "This is not just another book. This is a piece of history." What I add is that here is a book that could and would ennoble the reader by the thought: If this doctor could be so humane, kind, concerned and unbiased, why cannot I try to be a mite better than what I am? Hence In Line of Duty is a book that is a must read.

The book is priced at Rs 1500/= and is available from Vijitha Yapa Book shops, Barefoot, Odel, Makeen - Colpetty, Sarasavi - Nugegoda, Jeya Book Centre,

Or directly from Dr Gamini Goonetilleke -22 Sulaiman Avenue , Colombo 5 - phone 2503938. I

Click here to view reviews of other books in our archives.


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