From humble beginnings in Sri Lanka, Prof Tissa Wijeratne has become a leader in the field of Neurology. 

BORN and raised in what I describe as “the jungle,” my life started in one of the most remote parts of Sri Lanka: a village called Kirioruwa-Bandarawela, in the central mountains.

Electricity, hot water, television, and telephone were miles away from us. I fondly recall days spent as a child, reading in the shade of a tree in the rice fields that surrounded my family’s home.

The mountains were covered with a layer of lush tea bushes. Our home sat on the top of one of these mountains.

Fast forward several decades, and life couldn’t be more different.

I am the Director of Stroke Services in the Neuroscience Research Unit at Western Health, and Director of both Academic Affairs and International Affairs at the University of Melbourne.

I am also chair of the Department of Neurology at Western Health, promoting better brain health through my leadership, and the first Sri Lankan-born neurologist to lead an academic neurology department in Australia.

Looking back, I think I fell in love with medicine when I realised the immeasurable potential to change human lives for the better.

I was always dreaming, ravenously reading, thinking … trying to discover new ways to improve life for others.

I was accepted in to medical school at Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya in 1987 as a merit student.

I had no idea that I could end up in medical school, even though I loved biology at high school.

The day before I departed for university, the whole village visited my parents with whatever treasure they could carry.

“We are very proud of you, son. Be a good doctor, and come back to the village. We will need you one day,” they said.

I still recall my father’s deep voice as he walked me to the railway station.

“I have no doubt you will go all the way,” he said.

“It is very important for you to remember your roots.

“Whatever you become, every time you come home, you are one of us, one of them,” he told me, pointing to a fellow villager working in a farmyard.

“You should always be very humble.”

University life was a dream come true. There were no rice fields to work, no physical labour to do on the farm.

But in 1987, part-way through my first year of medical school, a national youth uprising resulted in several years of chaos in the country.

Educational establishments closed for the period of insurgency and many of my mates were killed, suspected of having links with the rebel group.

During what became a three-year hiatus, I took solace in reading as much as I could, while helping my parents farm the surrounding rice fields and gardens in my village.

I really missed university life, particularly the library.

So, I began to convert my thoughts into words.

I wrote poems and stories. One by one, they were published by a number of leading national newspapers and magazines in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I became well-known in Sri Lanka, with more than 3,000 published pieces. I would sit under a tree in the rice fields and write. I thought that if I could not be a physician, maybe I would become a journalist.

In 1990, the youth uprising was crushed – and the universities reopened.

I faced a fork in the road.

Should I continue down the new path, and take up a post as deputy editor for a leading national science weekly in Sri Lanka?

Or return to my much-loved medical school and finish what I had started?

Ultimately, I chose medicine and in my third year, decided that the brain was the most fascinating organ in the whole body.

The human mind always fascinated me. I was quite interested in depression, anxiety, memory and wisdom, and often spoke on these topics on national radio.

A lot of people do not know their own minds. Most of us either live in the past or future, not the present, and we become daydreamers. We forget to live in the moment. We ruminate in the past or future. This is the root cause of suffering.

But I began learning about my own mind from a young age, about 10 or 11.

I graduated with high marks and secured one of the most prestigious internship appointments in Sri Lanka, at the professorial University Medical Unit and University Surgical Unit at National Hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Then fate intervened. I met a girl, who later became my wife. Born in Sri Lanka, she had moved to Australia as a young student in medicine and returned to take an elective at the hospital.

At the completing my internship, I was handpicked to be the youngest junior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, where I was trained in neurology and stroke medicine.

At the time, I was observing the brain drain as my peers left for the UK, Australia and America.

I’ll be honest – I hated them.

I felt strongly that they had a duty to serve in the less fortunate parts of the world.

But when I got married, I had to leave Sri Lanka too. The guilt I felt at leaving my beloved homeland in 1998 cut deep.

It was some months before I could progress in establishing a new life in Australia with my wife.

In 1999, we moved to New Zealand as part of her training in psychiatry. I had the good fortune of working with a remarkable young infectious diseases physician, Dr Richard Everts, who pushed me to complete physician training in Australasia while I was contemplating a neurobiology PhD.

For the first time in my life, I could practice what I read in textbooks. I couldn’t do that in Sri Lanka.

After completing my basic physician training in New Zealand and having our first child in the North Island, we moved south, to Christchurch, where I undertook my advanced training in neurology. Here, I developed my skills in movement disorders, stroke medicine, and headache medicine.

We eventually moved back to Australia, and I took up a post at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, where our second child was born.

In 2006, Prof Robert Helme invited me to set up a stroke program, a neuroscience research program and a movement disorders program at Western Health, where resources were limited.

I went on to develop the fastest-growing stroke service in Australia at Western Health

But I use nearly 70 per cent of my annual leave to go back to Sri Lanka to promote better brain health.

I have conducted more than 150 master classes in stroke medicine, headache medicine and movement disorders throughout Sri Lanka since 2007.

I have trained a young neurologist/physician from Sri Lanka at Western Health almost every year since 2008. At present, another Sri Lankan neurologist from Kandy is training with me in Melbourne.

Australia has one of the best health care systems in the world, and I am proud to be a part of it. We deliver state-of-the-art care for our patients regardless of how much is in their pocket.

Not so long ago, I did not have any office space or a personal assistant at Western Health, while I was leading one the biggest stroke services in Australia.

I was using a bin along the corridor to lean on and sign paperwork. Just because I am in Melbourne does not mean I live with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I don’t believe in whingeing about what I don’t have.

I believe I am a link between the developing world and the developed world.

I always wanted to do something great for the world and fellow human beings, and the Australian health system has given me the opportunities I never would have had in Sri Lanka.

Last year, I was very sick. At one point, I was told that I was not going to live longer than two months. I had sleepless nights, wondering: “Did I get it wrong? I could have done more private practice and paid off the mortgage. Why did I spend time travelling back and forth to Sri Lanka rather than building my wealth and CV?”

I knew the answer right away. This is the best way to live my life. There is nothing that makes us happier than giving and expecting nothing in return.

Now, I am enjoying perfect health.

There’s much more work to do, so let’s do our very best to get the best possible care for our patients – irrespective of the resources we have.

 

 

 

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  1. Dr.B.V.P.Premarathna

    Please visit our home in Negombo,when yourteam visit Sri Lanka.Will provid lodging and feed with natural fresh fifish and fruits.

    Can you feed us your knowledge on how to grow fresh fruits and veetablefaster..Eating them can prevent CNS diseases ,including dementia ,consuming tamarind fo prevent early dementia.

    I am really serious about consuming natural organically grown products in preventing chronic CNS diseases.

    I too like to contribute by labouring and participating growin organic foods in Sri Lanka and ,i appel you to include me in your project.

    Regards

    DR.Vasanthi(MBBS.(1993)CCA(2005).AMC and OET(2009) read.MBA(online course,)(2017)Studied towards MD Psychiatry.by2018.

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