Government about-turns break Medical graduates’ hearts and careers | Sunday Observer

Government about-turns break Medical graduates’ hearts and careers

Shane Halpe (28) a product of one of the prestigious colleges in Colombo decided to pursue medicine soon after his A/Levels with the hope of qualifying as a doctor. After completing the MBBS degree 3 years ago, he now serves as a non-clinical administrative assistant at the government-controlled Dr Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH) in Malabe. Has his lifelong dream been shattered when on the verge of achieving it?

The failed experiment

Shane is just an example of 84 graduates of SAITM who did not receive their registration from the Sri Lanka Medical Council(SLMC), due to its obdurate bureaucracy. Former President of SLMC Prof. Colvin Gunaratne once accused the powerful Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) of taking control of the SLMC. SLMC has to be an independent body.

It was clear in the past few years the anti-SAITM campaign and blocking the Malabe private medical college students, were piloted by the GMOA and IUSF (Inter-University Student Federation). Eventually, these two pressure groups succeeded in closing down SAITM and integrating existing students into the medical faculty of Kothalawala Defence University (KDU).

But there was no solution for the SAITM’s MBBS graduates and three court cases are pending, seeking justice.

“From the beginning there were uncertainties. But we expected a solution because we were the first batch, and we trusted Dr Neville Fernando and our lecturers. We had the best lecturers. All the facilities were up to the mark. That made us feel safe” Shane told in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

In his first couple of years, Shane enjoyed his university life despite the uncertainties. He played for the university football team and won University colours too. It was a joyful time- But everything suddenly flipped.

When his batch went to Homagama hospital for clinical training Shane remembers how he realised the gravity of the problem. “They literally chased us out,” said Shane. “We experienced the pressure given to us by the GMOA.The MOU signed between SAITM and the government became merely a piece of paper, under their pressure” he added.

Later SAITM administration decided to send students to private hospitals for their clinical training which also turned out to be a flop for the same reason. “GMOA people circulated leaflets to patients stating that ‘SAITM students are coming and your lives are in danger’. In that context even private hospitals blocked us out.

Then overnight Dr Neville Fernando decided to build a Teaching Hospital” said Shane.

SAITM indeed was a University Grants Commission approved Degree Awarding Institute, and initially planned to award twin medical degree with the collaboration of Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy in Russia. Later, following a change of mind, SLMC discarded Twin degree programs and subsequently, SAITM received the Degree Awarding Status.

“When I look back now, it feels like a failed experiment and we are part of it. It failed because it got politicised. One government started it and their successor decided to close it. That is what exactly happened. And we became like unwanted children.

Initially, there were about a thousand students. Now, just 84 - 84 votes do not matter, right?” Shane questioned.

He continued, “Who would think of political issues when you join a university to study. Did we ever imagine that we will be in the news with you guys interviewing us?”.

Social and Psychological encounters

Be it SAITM graduates or Students, it has become their eternal problem now. This has gotten them into a series of other problems as well. For some female SAITM graduates It has become a serious social issue - “Even my friends cannot get married now,” said Shane. According to him, girls in his batch missed marriage proposals due to the simple fact that they were SAITM graduates.

“Its only after establishing ourselves that we can think of marriage, having kids and moving ahead in life. Now we cannot do so ” said Shane.

In June 2016, Malshani Suriyarachchi -another MBBS holder from SAITM- filed a case in the Court of Appeal (CoA) demanding provisional MBBS registration with the Sri Lanka Medical Council.

The CoA verdict was given in favour of the petitioner on January 31, 2017. However, refusing to adhere to the CoA decision, in March 2017, SLMC appealed at the Supreme Courts and the apex courts of the country upheld CoA decision on September 21, 2018.These Court cases have become the hot topic of SAITM’s legacy.

“It came to a point that I did not want to say that I study at SAITM because it gave others an opportunity to start a lengthy conversation. Actually, it was like gossip. I cannot go to church or a funeral. Everywhere the topic is SAITM” D.T. Egodawatta another graduate of SATIM told the Sunday Observer.

She said, “Friends and relatives keep asking about SAITM. Are you done with it? What is happening now? Likewise. I understand that I might be the only SAITM graduate that a 100 people I meet outside, will. But I am just fed up with these repetitive conversations”.

All SAITM MBBS graduates are now over 28 years old. But compared to others in the same age, these individuals are stagnating in one place, not that their wings are broken but tied in various ways. Both Shane and Egodawatta now work as Non-clinical administrative assistants, under a consultant surgeon. This job even includes some clerical work such as typing too.

“This is not what we wanted in our lives. But we are grateful to NFTH for giving us the opportunity to work here. We at least can occupy ourselves with something productive” they said.

Peer pressure

Peer pressure is another issue SAITM graduates faced throughout their university life and which is still the experience of the 84 graduates. Thulanjalee Balalla (28) another graduate shared her personal experience- She has many school friends who took the same class with her and then entered to state medical faculties. “Sometimes they threw some ugly comments.

Especially through social media. Most of the time, this put us down. Initially, it was hard to believe that even your own colleagues are against you” said Thulanjalee who is now working as a visiting lecturer in a private institution.

She said, “Every time I feel down, I would call another colleague of our batch. Such group therapy got us all going. I simply ask others to be empathetic about this situation. Before asking a question or making a comment, think what will happen to you if you were in another person’s shoes.

People are very inquisitive about court cases. But it has been nine years and no one had ever asked me, ‘how are you Thulanjalee (How did you cope up this problem for 9 years?”.

Born into a middle-class family in Gampaha Nipuni Dabarera (31) entered into SAITM with plenty of hope. But instead of being a qualified doctor she is still far away from her dream.

Currently, she works at the Institute for Health Policy (IHP) as a Field Investigator.

After her graduation and following the SLMC rejection of provisional registration, Nipuni joined a government medical institution, as a pre-intern. Vicious comments such as -“SAITM eka wahala daanna one. Oke inne ‘S’ thunakwath nethi ewun. Un honda paarawal athugaannai, kakkussi hodannai witharai” (SAITM students do not even possess three ‘S’ passes.They are only good to sweep roads and clean toilets)” from a young Councillor assistant said totally broke Nipuni.

“That day I went home and cried for hours. I don’t regret going to SAITM, but it is such a disappointment when people tell us we are not qualified” said Nipuni.

Billionaires children

Hasara Kulatunga belongs to the third batch of the SAITM medical faculty. She passed out in 2017, March, and currently works as a demonstrator at NFTH.

“In the beginning, it was a very friendly and warm environment. I remember in the first day Dr Neville Fernando himself came and cut a cake celebrating the birthday of one of our seniors.

It was our second home until it was dragged down to hell” said Hasara. The irony is students absorbed to KDU are now visiting NFTH for their clinical training and Hasara teaches them under the supervision of professors.

“My question is there are a large number of students who go abroad and get medical degrees. Why only we become “rich kids” and not them?” questioned Hasara.

“In our batch, there were many students who had financial difficulties. Their parents had either sold properties or taken loans to educate them. I have a good example. Last week, I received a call from one of our batchmates who is from Jaffna. She’s now in Jaffna, married but unemployed. She said that they just finished off the loan taken to pay her university fees.

Can you imagine that she paid for 10 long years and achieved nothing?” she added.

In the meantime, those who left SAITM midway, and studied medicine at foreign universities are back in Sri Lanka with their degree and planning to go on clinical training on this November.

Graduates like Shane, Egodawatta, Thulanjalee, Nipuni and Hasara have been continuously failed by their country.