My late mother was a nurse, a woman of exceptional beauty and strength. She dedicated 41 years to government service and reached the pinnacle of her profession before retiring and working abroad. She spent a few years in Norway and Saudi Arabia before returning home to Sri Lanka after the tragic loss of our sister in a Russian accident. For the next 20 years, she worked tirelessly in private hospitals across the country, including Nawaloka, Asiri, Central, Delmon in Colombo, and Philips in Kalutara, near our home in Matugama. Her final assignment was at Philips Hospital, where she trained young nurses. Despite her reluctance, she retired at the age of 80. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 83. More than the earnings, her true passion was the work she did and teaching young nurses. She loved her profession and earned high respect from her students.
She took immense pride in her profession and could be considered a true student of Florence Nightingale. Day and night, she cared for patients with unwavering dedication.
She often recounted how she was recruited into the nursing service by New Zealand and Belgian sisters in the 1950s, when she was just 19 years old. During those times, trainee nurses had to undergo rigorous training under the watchful eyes of these foreign sisters who maintained exceptionally high standards. Her expertise lay in the labor room, and she used to boast, “You have to be strong and caring to work in the labor room. That’s why the New Zealand sisters selected me for the job.” She served in government maternity hospitals in De Soya and Castle Street for a significant part of her career.
I can vividly remember her coming home with tired eyes after night shifts, just as we were about to leave for school. By the time we returned home from school, she had already prepared our lunch and was eagerly waiting for us. Looking back, I now realize that she must have slept for less than five hours, and even then, during the daytime. She never neglected her responsibilities as a mother because of her chosen profession.
In the late 1960s, when my late father became the Private Secretary to the Justice Minister and head of the Senate, Honorable Fairly Wijemanna, he suggested that my mother take early retirement. I remember vividly, as a 5-year-old child, witnessing my mother’s anger and her vehement refusal to accept that suggestion from my father. That was the last time my father discussed her early retirement. We were fortunate to have two dedicated servants at home, Asilin and Piyasena. Asilin took care of the cooking, and Piyasena ensured we got to school. My father sacrificed some of his outings with friends to be at home with us whenever my mother was on night duty.
My mother was incredibly proud of her profession, and her dedication and commitment to her patients were truly extraordinary.
From time to time, she would recount her experiences working in the labor room at Castle Street Maternity Hospital, which was incredibly demanding. She mentioned delivering three or four babies during a single shift and exclaimed, “How wonderful it is to bring new life into this world. I am blessed to have this job.” She maintained a complete record of the babies she had helped deliver in her diary. It was truly amazing!
There was one incident that left her with regret. In the mid-1960s, when she took over the night shift, the nursing staff from the previous shift informed her that they had a stillbirth, a baby boy who had been pronounced dead by the doctors and was lying in the labor room sink, awaiting the arrival of the mortuary staff. Against all odds, my mother grabbed the baby, who was pronounced dead, by his legs and gave him a hard tap on his back. Miraculously, the baby started coughing. Chaos erupted in the labor room, and the child was immediately transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. Unfortunately, she couldn’t record this baby’s name in her diary. She used to say, “This lucky baby must still be alive and would be around your age.” What an incredible story!
When I became the Commander of the Navy, my mother broke her hip bone. Dr. Wijedasa, the Navy’s orthopedic surgeon, wanted to treat her at our Navy hospital in Walisara. I believe that was one of the happiest times she spent before her passing, after a year. Her hip replacement surgery was successful, but she didn’t want to be discharged from the Navy hospital and return home. She was immensely popular among our doctors and nurses and was loved by our trainee nurses. My mother would often recall incidents from her long and precious nursing career and share her wisdom with them. I know she was an excellent teacher. When she left the Navy hospital, there were tears in the eyes of the trainee nurses. She was a graceful lady who left a loving impression on everyone she met. I believe she inherited this quality from her profession. Needless to say, she was extremely proud of me.
She never focused on the money she earned during her government nursing career. When comparing her earnings abroad, in private hospitals, and in government service, she considered the latter as “peanuts.” She never complained about her earnings but rather preached the teachings of Florence Nightingale. She would say, “We were angels for the sick, carrying our lamp in the darkest night, ensuring their fast recovery.” This sentiment resonates with what former British PM Boris Johnson expressed after leaving the hospital during the COVID pandemic. He paid tribute to two nurses, Jenny from New Zealand and Louis from Portugal, who stayed by his bedside during the night he was in the ICU, receiving oxygen. In his own words, “When things could have gone either way.”
This write-up serves as more than just a tribute to my mother; it is a recognition of all our nurses, sisters, matrons, and medical staff whom we see on TV, tirelessly working with dedication and commitment during the difficult times our country faces. Your tremendous efforts have helped us overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the death rate low.
I understand how much you earn in government service through your pay and allowances. I understand the challenges and exhaustion of night shifts. I know that you cannot afford to have “Asilin and Piyasena” at home with what you earn. I understand the sacrifices your husbands have to make due to your profession. I know how much your children miss you.
But do not worry; you are the true disciples of Florence Nightingale. The nation highly appreciates your tireless work day in and day out.
I see my mother in each and every one of your eyes and faces. Your children will one day write and speak of your unwavering commitment, just as I am doing for my mother.
I SALUTE YOU!