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Suku’s family and heart

On the 8th of May, 2020 a new building was opened in a simple ceremony at the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH). Built at a cost of Rs 15 million, it provides comfortable accommodation for 32 nurses. The story in brief is as follows.

When the National Task Force on Covid-19 was informed that there was a serious accommodation issue at the IDH, General Daya Ratnayake, former Army Commander and current Chairman, Ports Authority, had immediately decided that the problem could be resolved. He contacted his friends in the Royal College Old Boys of the East Coast (USA). The RCOBEC Foundation immediately agreed to raise the funds. Personnel of the Ports Authority and the Air Force came together to handle the construction. All done in a matter of a few weeks.

We have seen the citizens of this country rise to the occasion whenever the country faced great perils. As such, we should not be surprised about any of this. Some give a lot, some little. Each according to his or her ability. And yet, there’s something special about this gift and it is not in the amount.

(Rtd) General Daya Ratnayake detailed the process and the Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi made an impassioned speech, both remarkable in their own way. A person by the name of Lasantha Fernando spoke during the opening ceremony. He spoke a few words, literally. He was invited to speak as ‘a representative of Dr Sukumar Nagendran’s family.’ Sukumar, or ‘Suku’ as he is to his friends, is the current President of the said Foundation. Suku and his wife Ann, whose philanthropy is legendary,  hadn’t thought twice about helping out.

Lasantha noted that the audience might wonder how he and Suku were ‘related.’ What he essentially said was that the commonality and relatedness had to do with humanity and not bloodline.

Not that the ‘bloodline’ has lacked humanity of course. Dr Neesha Rockwood, Suku’s cousin and a Consultant HIV Physician trained and specialized in London with a PhD in HIV/Tuberculosis with years of experience working South Africa, now based at at the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo University, explained. She spoke of their ancestors. Her great great grandfather, Dr W G Rockwood was the Chief Surgeon of the Colombo General Hospital for 20 years. The Rockwood Memorial Hall was donated by the family to the hospital in his name. Suku’s grandfather Dr Saga Tyagaraja who trained at Cambridge University was a prominent Microbiologist at the Colombo City Microbiological Laboratory.

They’ve given heart and soul to their work and their fellow citizens no doubt. Just like Suku, whose philanthropic projects cut across all communities and have been implemented across the length and breadth of the island.

Heart. That’s a key word. Former President of the Foundation Rukshan Perera, who read out Suku’s message, had composed a song for the occasion. ‘Our hearts are still there,’ the title says it all.

‘We learnt of books and men, we learnt to play the game, we thank those who taught us to be kind and humane, we will always care and always share, ‘cos our hearts are still there, in Sri Lanka,’ (even though they live in New York).

It was not just a gift. It was appreciation. The Foundation recognized the immense efforts and sacrifices of the armed forces and healthcare workers. ‘[They] carry us on [their] shoulders, through day and night…[and are] the unsung heroes in Sri Lanka,’ Rukshan added. It’s a token of gratitude, according to Suku: ‘we attribute our success abroad to our years of rigorous and free education in Sri Lanka, where we were taught the value of integrity, teamwork, tenacity and unconditional service for the betterment of humanity.’

The Minister caught the line from the song on unsung heroes in expressing her thanks to Suku and his friends. She also drew from  Lasantha’s and Neesha’s remarks about family and heart, recalling exceptional public servants in Ratnapura and how they served and were revered by one and all. That all had ascribed identities (Tamil, Sri Lankan) but what marked them, as she pointed out, was their professionalism, integrity and humanity.

Suku does his work quietly. He’s accomplished of course. He’s a private physician, drug developer, biotech executive and a globally recognized expert and pioneer in gene therapy. A gene transfer treatment he helped develop is transforming the lives of hundreds of children suffering from spinal muscular atrophy. He has always wanted to help broader patient populations. Well, not just patients obviously.

His family. With his wife Christine Ann, Suku set up the Nagendran Scholarship for international studies at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The beneficiaries are his family. The committee and members of the ‘East Coast Foundation’ are his family. He is brother to his batch mates at Royal College (Class of 1983), son to his teachers and father to all young Royalists he helps in numerous ways, especially the most needy. Sri Lanka is his home and Sri Lankans are his family.

A few months ago, I asked Sukumar to write a small note for a souvenir to be released at an old boys’ gathering. Suku is a busy man, but he sent a short note about what he would like to see: ‘all students at Royal College must be together in a mixed class every year regardless of race, religion, language or economic status, and everyone should advance based on merit and skill.’  He added the following observation: ‘maybe too idealistic but this is what I believe in.’

That’s the heart that Rukshan sang of, his and those of his friends. That’s the family that Lasantha referred to. That’s Dr Sukumar Nagendran, ‘Suku’ to me, always.

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