‘It made a world of difference:’ UK doctor hails ex-students

In this image taken in June 2018, Dr. Poorna Gunasekera, second right, poses with a group of medical students from Plymouth University who had just completed training in ophthalmoscopy. At his darkest moment in his struggle with the coronavirus, Dr. Poorna Gunasekera glimpsed the first rays of light when three of his former students came to help. Having endured a severe deterioration in his COVID-19 symptoms after around 12 days of contracting the virus, Gunasekera was rushed to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, in the early hours of March 30. "It was wonderful that during that time, two of my former students, who are doctors, and another who was a nurse, actually came and they identified themselves," he told The Associated Press over several interviews following his release from hospital on April 9. (Poorna Gunasekera via AP)

At his darkest moment with the coronavirus, Dr. Poorna Gunasekera glimpsed three rays of light.

Following a severe deterioration in his COVID-19 symptoms, Gunasekera was rushed to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, southwest England, in the early hours of March 30, and three former students came to treat him.

Upon entering the “red zone,” which is one step below the intensive care unit, the 57-year-old associate professor of biomedical sciences at the city’s university was put into isolation.

“It was wonderful that during that time, two of my former students, who are doctors, and another, who is a nurse, actually came and they identified themselves,” he told The Associated Press following his discharge from the hospital on April 9.

His voice choked with emotion as he remembered the encounters.

“It made a world of a difference to me,” he said. “I couldn’t have seen their faces, they were all in their protective things, but they came, and they not only treated me, they did some really difficult procedures … it gave me so much strength to know that these wonderful people were actually there.”

The feeling of respect was mutual.

Gertrude Magama, a 45-year-old nurse from Zimbabwe who has known Gunasekera since she volunteered for one of his projects, said it was an “honor” to look after him.

“I was touched when he reassured me that I was doing well when he was going through pain and discomfort,” she said. “In my eyes, he will forever be a valuable part of my future success in my nursing profession.”

Gunasekera, better known to friends and colleagues as P.G., grew up in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and led the Guard of Honour accorded to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit in October 1981.

He came to the U.K. in 1999 on a Commonwealth scholarship to study for a Master’s at University College London and has been in the academic field ever since, and at Plymouth since 2012.

Medical knowledge doesn’t necessarily bestow wisdom. He readily admits he underestimated his deterioration, even when his temperature soared above 39 C (102 F) and he lost 6.5 kilograms (around 14 pounds) with diarrhea. While people infected with the coronavirus often experience mild or moderate symptoms, possible complications like pneumonia can put their lives at risk.

“As he is a doctor and trains doctors on a daily basis, I trusted him and gave him the benefit of doubt when he told me he was slowly starting to feel better,” said his 26-year-old daughter Saki. “In hindsight, I think he was just trying to channel crazy levels of positive thinking so as to calm both his and my own worries.”

Eventually, Saki, who had mild symptoms along with her boyfriend George, “decided to overrule” her father and had him rushed to hospital. It was a decision he acknowledges ultimately saved his life.

Gunasekera spent about a week hooked up to oxygen supplies as his lungs had taken a “battering.”

Something curious occurred to Gunasekera on the “crucial” third or fourth day. He entered a pain-free phase “where the body stopped kind of talking to me” and his sense of proprioception — the awareness of one’s body in space — switched off too.

“I wouldn’t call it levitation, but I lost senses,” he said. “It was the most peaceful state in life I’ve ever been in. It was almost as if some authority up there said ‘stop worrying’ and it was so convincing I actually stopped worrying.”

He thinks it was a taste of nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism when individuals enjoy indescribable peace.

“It was a state of absolute bliss,” he said.

Yet the worrying resurfaced as his health improved and a few days later, Gunasekera was moved to a ward with three other recovering patients: “I was the baby of the bunch.”

On their first day, none could speak, since they were all hooked up to oxygen. But on the second day, an 80-year-old ex-Royal Navy officer, known only as Robert, single-handedly raised their spirits.

“He was a piece of pure magic,” Gunasekera said.

All four shared the same guilt of becoming new sources of outbreaks.

“All of us were ready for a kind of stigmatization that could come and we understood it,” he said. “If the roles were reversed, I’d be careful of meeting someone who has been diagnosed as COVID-positive even if it was a long time ago.”

Now he can’t wait to see his new partner, Hayley, and her family again after his 14-day self-isolation is over. He’s recuperating with Saki and George and his dog Barney in the tiny village of Filham in south Devon, and reflecting on how fortunate he is to get a second chance, unlike so many thousands of others. Britain has already had more than 15,000 people die in the pandemic and expects eventually to have the worst death toll in Europe.

Gunasekera is especially admiring of the current generation of medical practitioners, of whom he has taught many, for being so much more “humble” than his.

“Having gone through medical school myself, I remember we came out with this feeling that we are God’s gift to humanity, we were the supreme beings,” he said.

The new generation, he said, are “taught to acknowledge that there is a limit to our knowledge, and that there is so much uncertainty out there.”

Gunasekera hopes a more “cohesive society” will emerge that relates betterto the struggles of Britain’s National Health Service and that bridges the gap between generations.

“Social distancing, though it’s physical distancing, the beauty is it’s brought emotional connections,” he said.

“This is almost a reset button that society needed and perhaps we’ll come out of this a far better society, far better group of people than ever.”

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