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Personality of the Week

The dancing plastic surgeon


Chandani

When you look at Dr. Chandini Perera you can well imagine that she’s a dancer. What you won’t imagine is that she is also head of the Burns Unit at the Colombo General Hospital: one of Asia’s most progressive centres of treatment, for victims of among other things, acid attacks and attempts at self-immolation. I went along to find out just what makes Chandini tick.

Q: Tell me about your background

A: It’s rather unusual. My father was a forest ranger, Sinhala Buddhist, Govigama and all that, who nevertheless wore safari suits and spoke English. My mother was from Kerala, a Syriac Christian, one of a small community of Christians, originally Brahmin who converted when St. Thomas (Doubting Thomas) was ship-wrecked off the coast of India.

My parents met in Coimbatore where my father was training at a dance at the local YWCA. It was the 1950s then, and all very respectable — the young ladies were chaperoned of course, they wore chiffon sarees with sleeveless blouses and shoes with Perspex heels! – but it was also the new India, the India of emancipated women.

My father was an outdoors person, hunting and fishing, who loved his billiards and snooker and the club life. They bicycled everywhere, she in saree. He knew every back road there is to know, and when they got married he drove her all the way from Jaffna to Colombo to show her the country. Going on trips with him as children we never knew where we’d end up! We grew up in Nuwara Eliya, Puttalam, Kegalle and Kurunegala, all places where his work took him.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: I attended Visaka, so it was a simultaneous Buddhist and Christian upbringing. I always knew I’d be unhappy in an office job. The eldest of three, I was a shy child, always hating to put myself forward. Perhaps I was a perfectionist and therefore harder on myself. Strangely, my shyness evaporated on stage!

After school I applied and got selected to train as a stewardess on Air Lanka, which was changing from Air Ceylon just then and in the hands of the Singaporeans, with their extremely high standards. I had always been some-thing of a tomboy, running, swimming, backpacking, so I was forever getting told off because my eyebrows weren’t plucked, or my cheeks not pink enough or my lips not glossy enough! There was a rigid code of professionalism – for instance, you always spoke in a modulated voice. Oh, and absolutely no dangling earrings!

Then one morning my mother said, "Cut your nails, you have an interview today." Without telling me, she had applied on my behalf to NCMC, the private medical college which had just opened. There were lots of people applying, many from abroad who already had other degrees.

So I had to resign from Air Lanka. (Interestingly, all those girls in that first batch went on to become professionals in other fields — it says a lot for that strict Singaporean training we had!)

Q: What made you decide on plastic surgery?

A: I certainly didn’t imagine I would end up where I did! They said surgery and emergency medicine were not suitable for girls because of the long hours. Apart from neurosurgery, plastic surgery takes longest to train for.

But for me, it was the closest I would get to art and architecture, both of which I was extremely interested in and passionate about: reconstructive surgery requires imagination, and is creative. So I quietly set about it – at the end of my bed was a string on which I would practise a hundred surgical knots every night.

But doing burns was something else! It took me two years after taking over the unit to come to terms with the job, and initially I had a hard time forming a team. Burns patients often don’t survive because of the trauma involved. They’re frequently ostracized because of the circumstances leading to the burn, and their wounds smell because of the infection.

Do you know that only 5% of the world’s burns occur in the developed world, that the other 95% occur in the developing world? Most major burns in Sri Lanka are intentional! Due to prevailing social, cultural and ethical taboos, people are loathe to admit the real causes of these, even to themselves.

A burns patient doesn’t love you. They don’t love themselves either: they don’t want to face up to why they ended up this way. They’ll blame their mother, their father, their horoscope; anything but themselves. And the worst is, you can’t even make them look beautiful at the end of it. There will always be scars. Of every sort.

A lot of our job is to empower these scarred women to go back out there and lead a normal life. I must say it has made me very cynical about beauty without scars. So when strangers come up to me and say, "Oh, you’re a plastic surgeon? Good, then you can make me look beautiful," I smile at the sheer vanity of it all.

Q: And then that most curious aspect of you, the dancing. It is almost a religion with you isn’t it?

A: I met my husband through our mutual love of dancing – among other things he’s an instructor, specialising in Salsa! Dancing has its own challenges: when you put your body to the test you realise what a beautiful instrument it really is! And most important, looks don’t matter. It’s all to do with the fitness, the vitality, the rhythm. Anybody can dance! Of course there’s a healthy dash of egoism here – half the dancers in the class are half my age!

Q: And finally, what is your dream?

A: The great majority of our patients are desperately poor and can’t afford private hospitals. At the same time there is a huge amount of dedication and talent in the team. When you think how much of an impact it has made so far, with a minimum of resources. If it were only provided with a modern, well-equipped burns unit, it could become a centre of excellence for the whole of Asia!



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