Republished with persmission from Hutt City Council
When Dr Kolitha de Silva left his homeland Sri Lanka in 1989, violence was escalating in one of Asia’s longest and bloodiest civil wars. The 26 year ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority did not end until 2009 with a total loss of 100,000 lives.
Life for the young Sinhalese doctor and his family was comfortable in Colombo where they had a big house (‘because everybody had left’) and servants. But their extended families were living in Australia and New Zealand and tensions were rising. “You would go to work and not know what would happen. There were bombings which shock me, even though life was good.”
The de Silvas, Kolitha, his wife Sandhya and their baby son arrived in Wellington in September 1989 and he worked as an IHC caregiver for a year in Johnsonville while studying to practice as a doctor in New Zealand. After working in hospitals around Wellington, he began working at Hutt Hospital as an obstetrics registrar.
In 1995 Kolitha decided to move to general practice. He has been a GP at the Naenae Medical Centre for 21 years, where he and Naenae colleague Dr David Young were among the very few GP obstetricians left in the country until they stopped delivering babies in 2006.
“I loved obstetrics. There’s nothing better than delivering a baby. It’s very rare for anything to go wrong and most of the time that’s the happiest moment of someone’s life. It makes you feel really satisfied giving a live, healthy baby to the parents and sharing that happiness.”
But delivering babies alongside working as a GP for 15 years was very anti-social. He missed family occasions and could be called at any time to deliver a baby. “David and I were working like machines. We would book some mothers into hospital early to be induced, organize the lady and then rush to the surgery by 8 am. Then by 10, we might get a call from the delivery suite. You’d rush back to the hospital. Patients would be in the waiting room but they were generally very understanding and when I finally got back to the surgery would ask ‘is it a boy or a girl’?!”
Kolitha is happy he made the decision to become a general practitioner and enjoys helping people through the happy and sad times in their lives. He is often invited to birthday parties and wedding anniversaries and attends the funerals of most of his patients.
“I like people. I’m not a hospital doctor kind of person where you treat someone and never see them again. Here I have a group of people who I consider to be my friends. It’s not just treating illnesses or conditions. I haven’t taken new patients for about 10 years (apart from family members) and everybody who comes here I know well.”
One of the most difficult parts of the job is giving people bad news. But Kolitha says knowing his patients makes it easier and he will tailor his approach for each patient. “Sometimes I will go to their place as I know if I call and ask them to come in they will get stressed and panicked. But I never tell them ‘you have three months or six months to live’ – nobody should tell you that. I will talk about a management plan, options, what’s going to happen.”
The stress of poverty and family disfunction can cause health issues such as respiratory and skin conditions caused by overcrowded and poor housing. Kolitha also worries about obesity and poor nutrition and thinks that Naenae needs fewer dairies and takeaway shops. However, he believes people have more choices in New Zealand. “This is a country of enormous opportunity. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, the gap between rich and poor is insurmountable but people have the courage to get up in the morning and try to find work even though there are not enough jobs for everybody. Here, if you want to do well, there are many opportunities and everybody wants to help you. Naenae has lovely kids, very talented kids but I see some of them get to a certain age and they lose motivation and lack mentoring.”
After 21 years, Kolitha loves working in Naenae. “It’s a lovely area. People have a bit of a thing about Naenae but what they don’t realise is the most amazing people live here. There’s a variety of people – old, young, rich, poor, multi -cultural, people doing a variety of jobs. It’s not boring because everyone is unique and interesting. Plus I find that people are very accommodating and respectful.
“I always feel there are no bad people, if you are respectful and welcoming, people will be respectful to you. I have gang members – they are the nicest people when they come to me because I don’t get into what they do. They are expecting me to help them and that’s what I focus on. You can’t be judgmental as a doctor because your decision-making changes. You have to make sure that everybody who comes through the door feels comfortable and is treated the same.”