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
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
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
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!