The pioneering Cardiologist Dr Narendradas Jayaratnam Wallooppillai, affectionately referred to as “Walloops” by his friends, who succumbed to heart failure on 6th January 2011, surely deserves the title ‘The Father of Cardiology in Sri Lanka’ because it was during his tenure that Cardiology came to its own as a speciality. However, he was not the first to head the Cardiology Unit of the General hospital, Colombo. That distinction goes to Dr Ivor Obeysekara who, in spite of fighting against all odds to establish a dedicated Cardiology Unit, took early retirement and left for Australia. Dr Obeysrekara’s tenure was short, not having sufficient time to develop the speciality, the Cardiology Unit functioning as a Cardiology ward during his time.
Dr Wallooppillai was born on 6th June 1925, to the wealthy and influential Velupillai family which settled in Balangoda thanks to the hospitality of the Ratwatte family; the ancestors of Mrs Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike. It is said that when he was admitted to St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, the warden, Canon De Saram, changed the spelling of his name from Velupillai to Wallooppillai as he thought it was more user friendly. He graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ceylon in 1951 and proceeded soon after to UK. He obtained MRCP (London) and MRCP Cardiology (Edinburgh), undergoing training in Cardiology in Manchester.
On his return he was appointed Consultant Physician, General Hospital, Jaffna. Subsequently he was appointed the first Physician-in-charge of the Cardiac Investigation Unit (CIU) in General Hospital, Colombo which was set up around the same time as the Cardiology Unit. Dr Mahinda Weerasena was appointed the Consultant Cardiac Radiologist to this Unit and Dr Thistle Jayawardena, Consultant Anaesthetist, who was instrumental in setting up the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (the first intensive care unit in the country), joined later.
I was fortunate to know Dr Wallooppillai from June 1968, when I became his Registrar, and owe my entire training in Cardiology to him. I pride myself in being the first Cardiologist to be trained entirely in Sri Lanka and it is a credit to his tutelage that even after leaving Sri Lanka, I was able not only to practice Cardiology in UK but also set up an acclaimed Cardiology service in Grantham Hospital. For this, I am eternally indebted to him.
How I got to working with Walloops is an interesting story. Whilst working as the Registrar in the Professorial Medical Unit of the Peradeniya Medical Faculty under Professor Ajwad Macan Markar and Senior Lecturer Dr T. Varagunam, I obtained M D (Ceylon) degree in December 1967. Though I had a further 18 months of my secondment to the Professorial Unit left, the Department of Health withdrew me and appointed me Resident Physician, General Hospital Kandy. To my surprise, I got a call from the Department inquiring whether I would be interested in the post of Registrar CIU in General Hospital, Colombo. Having ascertained that this unexpected offer was simply because there were no applicants in spite of the post being advertised twice, I decided to meet Dr ‘Kalu’ Jayasinghe, the Assistant Director of Hospitals to have a chat. Whilst admitting that Wallops is a tough task-master, he advised me to take it as it would be my opening to the speciality of Cardiology which was in its infancy at the time. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Jayasinghe for that sound advice which changed my life forever.
My initial reservations soon vanished as I found Dr Wallooppillai to be a great teacher, very inspirational one at that, as well as an efficient organiser. He shaped the career of many, including myself, who practice/d Cardiology not only in Sri Lanka but around the world. I enjoyed the work so much that it was with a very heavy heart I left the CIU in September 1969 to go to UK on a Departmental Scholarship for Post-graduate qualifications.
On my return with MRCP (UK) in early 1972, I was appointed Consultant Physician, General Hospital, Badulla. Shortly after that Dr Wallooppillai was appointed Cardiologist and he suggested that I state my claim to succeed him as the Physician-in-charge of CIU. Before I could do so, the Director of Health Services appointed another without even an advertisement, contrary to existing regulations! A long battle ensued and, finally, the Department offered to appoint two physicians to CIU but Dr Wallooppillai advised against taking up that appointment. Instead, he created a post of Registrar in Cardiology which I accepted in June 1973, in spite of having to step down from the position of a Consultant in a provincial hospital. I do not regret that decision as I was able to assist Walloops in developing Cardiology as a speciality. In 1975 Coronary Care Unit, the first medical intensive care unit in the country, opened and progress was relentless since. He gave me a free hand, as well as all the support, to develop the permanent pacing programme. The seeds that were sown blossomed out, Cardiology being one of the most advanced specialities in the country today.
My batch-mate as well as Jeewaka hostel-mate, Dr D. P.Atukorale was due to return after training in Cardiology in Manchester in late September 1973 and Walloops got information that he would be sent to Ratnapura where there were no facilities at all. He tasked me to meet Atu at the airport and take him home with the advice not to report to work till he sorted something out which he did. Atu joined us as another Registrar. During George Rajapaksa’s time as the Minister of Health, we were re-designated Assistant Cardiologists at the suggestion of Walloops.
On his retirement on 6th June 1985, I succeeded Dr Wallooppillai after a much-publicised ‘Cardiology Stake’. For about a month, newspapers were full of articles as a trade union claimed that two others were more suited to the job but I ‘won the battle’ because I had the highest number of points according to the system of selection in place. Ultimately, it was left for President Jayewardene to check the tally in front of the Minister to make the decision, it was rumoured! Undeterred, the trade union continued with strikes and other trade union actions which led to an effective division of the unit in March 1987. I was appointed the Senior Cardiologist-in-charge of the Institute of Cardiology, the other two being appointed Cardiologists. I was given the option of early retirement which I took in April 1988 which opened a new era for me.
During all these turbulent times, Dr Wallooppillai was my ‘rock’. I could depend on him for advice and support in all matters. He taught me not only Cardiology but also how to fight for principles. He was like a second father to me. His wife, Yoges, who pre-deceased him, showered kindness. They had no children but brought up Yoges’ sister’s daughter, Mala, till she passed ‘O’ levels at Ladies College and returned to her family living in London.
What was most impressive to me about Walloops was his absolute honesty and integrity. He reinforced the values imparted to me by my parents. He was held in high esteem and held many high positions. He was the President of the Ceylon College of Physicians, President of the Sri Lanka Heart Association for many years and the President of the Orchid Circle. His hobby was growing orchids and his garden was filled with wonderful, rare blooms. However, most remarkable was his time as the President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association in 1980, when I was the Honorary Secretary. I have served many Presidents as Assistant Secretary and Secretary of SLMA but no one equals Walloops. The monthly council meetings were a pleasure to attend. There was no straying from the points under discussion and the meetings were crisp, concise and always finished on time.
Though shy by nature avoiding large gatherings and a man of a few words, paradoxically, he was a trade union leader too! He was the President of the Association of Medical Specialists for many years and demonstrated to other trade unionists that justice for members could be extracted without confrontation and trade union action like strikes, by using the art of diplomacy which he excelled in.
After leaving Sri Lanka, on every trip back home I never missed seeing him. It was sad to see him gradually developing heart failure following a silent heart attack. When I saw him in February 2010, I did not expect to see him again but to my surprise I saw him again in October the same year, seeing private patients in Healthcare Laboratories.
The day before his death, Mala rang me to get my address as ‘Appa’ wanted to send me a note. When I received it, after his death, I realised it was his Goodbye message.
If there an afterlife, Walloops is one colossus I would love to meet again. Until then Sir, pleasant memories of a great life of service to rich and poor alike!