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The Extra Mile: The essence of humanity at its highest level

by damith
October 21, 2023 1:04 am 0 comment 1.9K views

Reviewed by Dinuli Francisco
The surgeon with the late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa at the Base Hospital, Palali in 1990

Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke’s “The Extra Mile” is an extraordinary journey through the life and experiences of a pioneering surgeon who faced immense challenges during the civil war in Sri Lanka. The book is a testament to his commitment, perseverance and the qualities required for surgical excellence.

The book’s title, “The Extra Mile,” aptly captures the essence of Dr. Goonetilleke’s dedication. Through his lucid and engaging writing style, he invites readers to witness the humanity that transcends the chaos of war. The stories of rural peasants, combatants and everyday individuals caught in the crossfire resonate deeply, underscoring the human cost of conflict.

Dr. Goonetilleke’s storytelling is not just a narrative of a surgeon’s experiences; it’s a profound lesson on the value of lifelong learning, the indomitable spirit required in the face of adversity, and the transformative power of dedication to the service of others. From the vivid descriptions of the battlefront scenarios to the captivating tales of compassion, dedication and devotion, each page of “The Extra Mile” reveals the essence of humanity at its highest level.

Captivating saga

Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke

Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke

The book unfolds as a captivating saga, spanning over three decades, filled with realistic portrayals of the challenges faced by a surgeon in and out of the hospital. The author’s experiences in providing surgical care amid the conflict zones of Sri Lanka bring to light the unimaginable difficulties and risks involved. The narrative skillfully weaves together tales of commitment, adaptability and the undying spirit of a surgeon willing to go the extra mile.

Dr. Goonetilleke’s account is not merely a documentation of medical procedures; it’s a reflection on the true meaning of life through service to a vulnerable community. The narrative transcends geographical boundaries, making it an essential read for the global surgical fraternity and an immense inspiration for young surgeons aspiring to make a difference in the world.

The reader is taken through the highs and lows of a challenging career, with the author’s vibrant energy evident in every word. The book is not just a compilation of stories, but a factual account of an important part of Sri Lankan history. Dr. Goonetilleke’s dedication to his oath and his unwavering commitment to healing and comforting others resonate throughout the pages.

The inclusion of never-seen-before photographs adds a visual dimension to the narrative, making the reader feel almost first-hand the pain, anxiety and desperation of those caught in the midst of conflict. The author’s ability to combine a gripping account of service with his experiences in trauma and military surgery makes “The Extra Mile” a unique and invaluable contribution to the literature on war and humanity.

One of the book’s highlights is Dr. Goonetilleke’s unprecedented visit to rebel-controlled territory, a journey fraught with risks and significant purpose; the thought provoking and nerve wracking adventure when he was invited by Dr. M. Ganesaratnam FRCS, the consultant surgeon at the General Hospital, Jaffna, to function as an external examiner for the medical students of the Faculty of Medicine, in Jaffna.

Supremo’s approval

Concerned about his security entering rebel-controlled territory he naturally made inquiries about his safety. Dr. Ganesaratnam had replied quite vehemently, “Gamini, when I invite you to Jaffna for an important official assignment, it is done with the full approval of the “Supremo”, and once he gives the approval, your safety is guaranteed”.

Naturally Gamini had fears and apprehensions, given the track record of the LTTE who were adept at reneging on agreements. Travel to Jaffna was by courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who had good rapport and a fine relationship with the rebels. Travel through armed LTTE check-points was tense “It was once-in-a-lifetime experience, as Gamini recollects, “I had the unique distinction of serving both sides of the divide”.

The LTTE newspaper “The Eelanatham had announced the arrival of ‘Sinhala Prof. Gamini Goonetilleke in Jaffna to examine medical students sitting for the final MBBS examination. “I was elated” states Gamini. The inmates of the Jaffna Hospital surgical ward included two Sinhala Fishermen from Chilaw, arrested, assaulted and admitted to the hospital by the LTTE as prisoners for straying into LTTE dominated waters in the North. A female medical student at the MBBS examination was the wife of an LTTE cadre.

Despite the chasm created by the ethnic imbroglio over the years, “I was given the facility of interacting with patients and taking photographs on visiting the special ward for LTTE war wounded”.

Somaratne and Ranjan, the fishermen from Chilaw had entreated him to effect their release. He had told them he would try his best. He had to devise a plan that would entail the consent of all; the ICRC and most of all, the Supremo”. Gamini had made it known to the LTTE that they should release the fishermen for the services rendered by him to the medical students of Jaffna.

He states, “I persisted with the request and LTTE agreed”. The prisoners were released to Gamini at the Point Pedro Jetty. Gamini was ecstatic. This was the best news for him in rebel-controlled Jaffna. It was now his bounden duty to take them to Colombo and hand them over to their relatives at the ICRC Headquarters in Colombo.

Meaning of life

Dr. Goonetilleke’s account is not merely a documentation of medical procedures; it’s a reflection on the meaning of life through service to a vulnerable community. The narrative transcends geographical boundaries, making it an essential read for the global surgical fraternity and an immense inspiration for young surgeons aspiring to make a difference in the world.

The detailed recollections of specific incidents, such as the challenges faced during Black July in 1983 and the poignant episode involving a politician and his secretary, bring forth the complexities of practising medicine in a war-torn landscape. Dr. Goonetilleke’s ability to navigate these challenges with unwavering commitment and a touch of humour adds a layer of authenticity to the narrative.

The case studies he has aptly illustrated, have undoubtedly added colour and high value to this manuscript. Gripping narratives of high velocity penetrating missile injuries to the head, chest and abdomen, patients being brought with bowels hanging out, carried by themselves, keep the reader glued to the book, wanting to read more.

The suffering of the ‘rural peasants’ who had nothing to do with the conflict, is brought out so vividly in the story of Susantha, the boy from a rural hamlet, injured by a rebel bullet. This narration is made most valuable with his personal observations of such sufferings when he visited the rebel-territory, at a time many would not have dared to do. The most important aspect emanating out of this story, is the futility of war, in the mind of an experienced surgeon who has seen it all.

“The Extra Mile” is not just a book; it’s a legacy—a legacy of a surgeon who went above and beyond, risking his life to save others, and a legacy of a man whose small efforts, repeated day in and day out, resulted in a profound impact on the lives of many. Dr. Gamini Goonetilleke’s memoir is a must-read for anyone seeking inspiration, insight into the human condition, and a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made in the pursuit of healing and service to humanity.

The book is available at Barefoot, Sarasavi, Vijitha Yapa 5th lane, MD Gunasena bookshops.

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