Short stories, Travel and Health Information
“Good night, Sister. I’ll see you next month after I get back from Jaffna”
“Good night, Doctor. Have a safe journey and don’t do any dangerous things.”
“Thanks. I’ll try not to.” He grinned at her. He was now the senior surgeon in this hospital, but Sister Perera still treated him like the young house officer who first came to work on her ward nearly twenty years ago.
He felt the chill in the night air as he stepped out through the sliding doors towards the hospital car park.
It was just after midnight – and tonight’s emergency operation had gone off well. Repairing a case of Oesophageal Atresia – a case where a baby is born with part of his oesophagus missing – is not easy. The surgeon has to open the baby’s chest, find the two blind ends of the gullet, and then carefully stitch them together so that milk – and as the child grows older, all ingested food and drink – can safely pass through. Anyway, Tilak reflected, he had done a good job and he was confident the baby would do well.
Children born with this defect hadn’t always been so fortunate, he recalled, as he drove home through the deserted streets of Colombo. When he had first come to work at the Children’s Hospital, less than ten per cent of these children survived. In Sri Lanka today, a child with Oesophageal Atresia had a good chance not only of surviving the operation, but also of growing up able to eat and drink just like a normal child.
Tilak’s mind went back to the first Oesophageal Atresia operation he’d seen. Since a child without an oesophagus cannot swallow, the baby would certainly have died without surgery. At that time no surgeons outside the two university hospitals in Colombo and Peradeniya would attempt the hazardous task of operating on such children, so the baby’s parents had hired a car and brought him all the way from their home 200 miles away in Jaffna to the Children’s Hospital in Colombo. It was a miracle that the child had survived the ten hour journey – and it had seemed a miracle too to Tilak that the child survived the operation. He had then been the surgical assistant to his “Chief” Dr. Jayasuriya and had watched the old surgeon deftly perform the operation. In fact Dr Jayasuriya had allowed Tilak to put in the final stitches to close the wound in the baby’s chest.
Tilak had taken a personal interest in that baby and looked after him carefully – and the child left hospital three weeks later, able to drink his milk as greedily as any other baby. There is an old saying in Sri Lanka that the Jaffna man never forgets – either a favour or an insult – and each year after that during the first week of July the little boy’s parents would make the long journey from Jaffna to Colombo with their son, bringing basketfuls of delicious Jaffna mangoes from their farm, to reiterate their thanks to the famous surgeon who had given their boy his life.
That operation, thought Tilak ruefully, was over eighteen years ago! Time had certainly been marching on! Now he was the chief surgeon at the Children’s Hospital. Old Dr. Jayasuriya, the man who had pioneered the art of paediatric surgery in Sri Lanka, was dead – and the little Tamil boy from Jaffna whose gullet he had repaired must be grown up now, perhaps married and with a child or children of his own. Tilak still remembered the boy’s name – Ganesh Velupillai – and the wide grin with which he used to greet the “Doctor Uncles” in Ward 7 when he made his annual visits. Unfortunately, Tilak had lost touch with the family when he went off to spend three years at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford for his postgraduate surgical training.
Reaching home, Tilak made himself a cup of coffee – and, cursing himself for having left it to the last moment, started packing his travelling bag. At 5 a.m., just four hours from now, an Army jeep would arrive to take him to the Air Force base in Katunayake, where a plane would be waiting to fly him to Jaffna. In his other role as a doctor of the Sri Lanka Army Medical Corps, Major Tilak Amarasekera was going to serve a two week stint with the troops of Northern Army Command.
He was able to snatch just a few of hours sleep before the alarm rang, and no sooner had he shaved, showered and brushed his teeth than the jeep was at his door. The driver, as army drivers are wont to do at 5 o’clock in the morning, made the twenty mile journey in thirty minutes flat – which if one is in a jeep with worn out shock absorbers, on an uneven, winding and narrow Sri Lankan road, can prove rather uncomfortable for the passengers. Tilak was glad to get aboard the plane, and almost as soon as it took off on its fifty minute flight northwards, he dozed off.
The dry heat of the Jaffna peninsula seemed to engulf him as he stepped off the plane on to the tarmac of Palaly airbase. A tall ebony-skinned Army captain came striding up to greet him, snapping off the required salute as he approached.
“ ’Morning, Sir. It’s good to see you. Since I hadn’t received a signal from HQ yesterday I was a bit worried that you might not turn up and I’d be stuck here for another fortnight.”
“You needn’t have worried about me not coming out here, JC. I’m so glad to get away for a break from the workload at the hospital that I’d have made a big fuss if the CO had tried to keep me away. And the way things have been in the hospital lately, I needed to get away for this two week vacation in the war zone. I hope the natives are being friendly these days.”
“Well, it’s been so quiet recently that I’ve actually been bored. Nothing but the usual colds, stomach aches and boot cuts. Even the Brigadier’s peptic ulcer has been behaving itself, despite all the cigarettes he keeps smoking. Oh, by the way, he wanted me to remind you to call on him this evening for a drink.”
“Yes, I must drop in to see him. His wife’s given me a book and a couple of videos for him. There was some talk that the terrorists were planning something big this month – maybe I’ve arrived just in time for the fireworks.”
“I doubt it, Sir. You’ll probably be as bored at the end of your tour of duty as I am now. I’ve finished the sick parade for the day, so you can go on to the mess and rest. And – you’ve got a good medical team here to support you; the two sergeants, Samarasinghe and Samarakoon, are about the best in the regiment. In fact, they could teach some of our regular army doctors a thing or two about field surgery.”
“Thanks. Well, have a safe flight back, JC, and give my regards to Manel. I’ll see you both when I get back to Colombo.” They formally exchanged salutes for the benefit of the soldiers who were watching, shook hands warmly, and while Tilak got into the jeep that would take him to the camp, JC remained behind to board the returning aircraft.
The scar-faced driver who drove him to the camp stopped just outside the officers’ mess. He opened the door for Tilak, stood stiffly at attention while he got out, and then taking the officer’s bag out of the back of the jeep, handed it over to the batman who had appeared. As Tilak turned to acknowledge his salute and dismiss him, the soldier hesitated – and blurted out “Sir, you don’t know me but my wife wrote to me about you. It was you who saved my son’s life. Boy called Chaminda. In your ward two months ago, sir. You operated and took out his burst appendix. Thank you, sir. God bless you, sir.”
It was probably the longest speech the man had made. Tilak was touched. Without waiting for a reply, the soldier saluted, turned about and walked away to his jeep.
Most soldiers are rough, hardened creatures who have a lot of difficulty putting emotions into words. These spontaneous words of appreciation were the sort of thing, Tilak used to say, that made a doctor’s life worth living. He stood watching the soldier get into his jeep and drive away.
The batman meanwhile had unpacked his bag and was hanging out his uniforms. “Lunch will be ready at 12, sir. Shall I bring you something to drink?”
“Yes Norman. Bring me a beer – a Lion Lager if you have any. If the bottle isn’t iced, just bring some ice cubes with it.”
He removed his socks and shoes and settled into the armchair. After lunch he decide he would have a nap, arrange a game of badminton with his old schoolmate who was stationed here, Major Christoffelsz of the Military Police, and then make the obligatory pre-dinner visit to the Brigadier’s quarters. After attending to the obligatory sick parade each morning, there would be plenty of time to read, chat and write letters while waiting for the war to start. Wasn’t it sometime during the First World War that somebody had first coined the phrase ‘The Phoney War’?
Tilak had just been woken from his afternoon siesta by Norman bringing him a cup of tea, when the telephone rang. It was Sergeant Samarasinghe. “There has been an incident on the Tellipallai road, sir. Two of our vehicles have been ambushed and there has been an exchange of fire. May I go in the ambulance to collect the casualties?”
He said it so calmly that he might have been asking for permission to go and collect the mail from the local post office. It took a moment for the impact of his words to hit Tilak.
“Get the ambulances and an escort ready, Samarasinghe, and come here to pick me up. I’ll go out with you. Tell Samarakoon to open the theatre and prepare to receive the casualties. We may have to deal with a Priority Two injury – or even a Three”
He hurried out of his sarong, dragged on his uniform, fitted on the unfamiliar helmet, and was at the door when the ambulance arrived.
When they reached the scene of the incident, the first thing they noticed was the engine block of the vehicle. It was sitting a good hundred yards away from the smouldering, twisted wreckage of what had once been an army truck. An explosion that had hurled a heavy engine block such a distance would have blasted mere human bodies into smithereens.
The scene was unearthly quiet, with only a few tell-tale palls of smoke and the smell of cordite giving some indication of what had taken place a short while ago. The leading vehicle had been blown up by a massive remote-controlled mine – after which the terrorists lying in ambush had opened fire on the soldiers in the second truck. Although they had managed to return fire, it had obviously been a one sided battle.
Tilak’s men set about collecting the human wreckage. Of the men who had been travelling in the ill-fated vehicles, only a few were alive – and barely so at that. The rest were now either dead bodies or dismembered parts of bodies, and would have to return not to the hospital but to the camp mortuary.
Sergeant Samarasinghe was attending to one of the shocked soldiers, expertly applying a pad and bandage to his badly bleeding arm. Tilak quickly examined a second soldier, a young lad of about twenty – checking his airway, breathing, pulse and blood pressure, listening with his stethoscope on his chest, feeling his limbs for fractures. The boy’s right thighbone was fractured, leaving the limb grotesquely twisted, while only a bleeding stump of flesh remained where his left foot had been.
Inserting a plastic cannula into a forearm vein, Tilak started an infusion of plasma, and then injected a vial of morphine into the tubing. After the boy mercifully lapsed into unconsciousness, he had him gently lifted on to a stretcher and then turned his attention to another wounded soldier.
This man had suffered a bullet wound of his chest. Luckily for him the low velocity bullet had passed two inches lateral to the heart, going through the lung and out the other side without hitting any vital structures. All Tilak had to do was relieve the pressure inside his chest by inserting a plastic intercostal tube under local anaesthesia, connect it to a bottle with an underwater seal, stitch it in place – and the wounded soldier was soon being carried back to the waiting ambulance.
At that moment Sergeant Samarasinghe came up. “They’ve discovered one of the wounded terrorists left behind, sir. Shall I attend to him?”
It was the age old question that every army doctor dreads. When confronted with enemy wounded – enemy that have just carried out a cold-blooded terrorist attack on one’s own people, what does one do? Do you treat them humanely as you would your own wounded soldiers – or leave them to bleed to death – or turn a blind eye while one of your own men ends their misery with a cold blooded bullet?
Tilak sighed “I suppose we’ll have to help the man, Samare. But make sure our own wounded are looked after first. And even if he appears badly wounded, get a couple of our own chaps to keep their guns trained on him and cover you as you approach him – these Tamil Tigers are not people who fight according to the Geneva convention.”
He walked up to the first ambulance and radioed Samarakoon to ensure that the operation theatre would be ready to receive them on arrival. The boy with his leg blown off would need a clean amputation done, and the fracture in his remaining limb would have to be set properly. The other soldier, whose arm was severely injured, would also need surgery.
Samarasinghe soon came up to him, followed by two orderlies bearing the wounded terrorist on a stretcher. “He’s got the same type of pneumothorax chest wound as that first soldier, sir,” said the sergeant, “we can put in a tube once we get him inside the ambulance.”
Tilak got in after the wounded men were loaded inside. He knelt by the stretcher on which the enemy soldier lay, a young man hardly more than a teenager dressed in the striped camouflage uniform which this particular terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam or LTTE, had taken to wearing. Having drawn up a syringe of local anaesthetic, he cut off the boy’s shirt to expose his chest.
As he did so, he noticed with a start that the man had a long scar, almost like an operation scar, running transversely backwards on the right side of his chest from his nipple towards his spine.
It couldn’t be – it was too much of a coincidence.
Yet, could it?
Trembling, he put his mouth close to the boy’s ear.
“Ganesh!” he shouted, “GANESH!”
The boy slowly opened his eyes, and forced them to focus on the officer in army uniform who was bending over him. They widened with fear. He stared hard at Tilak for what seemed a very long time. Then, through the mists of pain and morphine, his face relaxed and he uttered just two words –
This short story is a work of fiction, a figment of my own imagination – and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely co-incidental.
If you liked this story, please have a look at my collection of similar short stories Not Our War – available as an eBook from Amazon.com.au
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Thank you for your interest.
19 April 2020