There is a saying a man’s worth is not measured by the wealth he has gathered; it is measured by the words spoken of him and the sorrow shown at his passing. Nielhaan Gerald Samaranayake, esteemed medical professional, humanitarian and proud Peterite, was a man of such stature. Dr Samaranayake lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 49 and his passing is a great loss to the communities he served so willingly. Nielhaan was farewelled on Sunday, March 15, and as a Surgeon Commodore of the Sri Lanka Navy was accorded a full military funeral. More than 5000 mourners, including present and past students of St Peter’s College, gathered to pay their respects, all coming from many walks of life with a common bond – they were touched by Nielhaan in a special way. The accomplished gynaecologist had still much to give but even though his death was untimely his life can be remembered and celebrated for what he had achieved and given in return. From his days at St Peter’s, Nielhaan displayed the talent that would place him above the ordinary. He was a champion athlete, holding the 300m sprint record and receiving the Peterite Gold for excellence in sport, academics and drama. His education was
well-rounded by his appointment as college head prefect and this would hold him in good stead in future years. Nielhaan loved St Peter’s and he revelled in the Josephian-Peterite cricket big matches and 50-over games. “He was in his element as the main cheer leader and would carry the college flag and parade all around the ground with the schoolboys,” says his brother Sasthri, who resides in Brisbane. There is such pride in Sasthri’s eyes and voice as he talks about Nielhaan, 11 years his junior. There is joy too as he remembers the good times shared with his younger brother. “Nielhaan lived life to the full, he loved to entertain,” says Sasthri. “He was a good singer and loved folk songs. “People were naturally drawn towards him and he loved spreading good cheer around him.”
From the time he entered the University of Colombo after securing the best college exam results, Nielhaan was destined for big things. He naturally
followed in the footsteps of his father Gerald – a gynaecologist himself – and
went on rounds with him while an undergraduate. One important precept he learnt from his father was to give his time and medical expertise freely to the underprivileged and disadvantaged.
The champion relay quartet (from left) of Shanaka Fernando, Nielhaan Samaranayake, Warren Krause and Tissa Perera swept all competition before them in 1982. The Peterite team was unbeaten in the 4 x 200 and 4 x 100 events at the Relay Carnival and Public Schools meets. Nielhaan Samaranayake ran the second leg of the 200m relay and anchored the 4 x 100 team. Reminiscing about the champion relay team, Shanaka Fernando said: “We had the practice of being in the lead in all races from the very start, with all four athletes capable of clocking the 100m between 11.2 and 11.5 seconds. “During the past three decades, I have met many athletes from Royal, St Thomas, De Mazenod, Trinity, St Joseph’s and other schools who competed with our team in 1982, and all of them said they were targeting second place as this combination of St Peter’s was unbeatable.” St Peter’s won all the Invitation Relays in 1982.
His medical studies gained momentum when he topped the batch in the final MBBS in 1994, gaining first class and distinctions in obstetrics and gynaecology, and paediatrics. He was awarded the Frank Gunaratne gold medal for paediatrics and his career blossomed as he worked at a number
of medical institutions in Sri Lanka. Nielhaan was a willing learner and constantly refined his skills by advancing his studies and specialising in specific surgical techniques. He also was a “people person”. One of his mentors, Dr Wilfred Perera, said this of Nielhaan in a recent newspaper tribute: “Nielhaan had a very good rapport with his patients and nursing staff and others in the hospitals.” Among Nielhaan’s medical repertoire was sports medicine and this opened doors for a two-year stint with the Sports Ministry, during which he travelled overseas with the national teams as physician.
He spread his wings further by travelling to the United Kingdom to work and study, showing his prowess in hospitals in Wales and Bath, England. By 2005, He had earned the title of Master of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists but it would be a 10-year wait for him to gather the further honour as a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Poignantly, this honour was to be bestowed on him at a ceremony on April 12 at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Instead, the conference of medical heavyweights held a minute’s silence for him and a posthumous fellowship was to be handed to his wife, Dilko.
Nielhaan returned to Sri Lanka in 2008 and steered his career on a new course by joining the Navy and rising to the rank of Surgeon Commodore. He conducted weekly clinics while still maintaining a private practice and he held this position until the time of his passing.
A year later, St Peter’s was to benefit from his boundless energy and organisational skills. As chairman of the OBU’s dance committee, aided by
his team, he galvanised sponsorship and support to raise the funds needed to completely refurbish the sports pavilion toilets and staff room for the teachers.
“The teachers loved him, there were tears when they saw what he had
done,” says brother Sasthri. In the following two years, Nielhaan continued the OBU’s philanthropic association with St Peter’s College as president of the organisation. Sasthri says he was amazed at Nielhaan’s energy and skill in
managing so many aspects of his life. “He was relentless. He never stopped,” says Sasthri. “I asked him ‘how do you manage to keep all these things going?’ “He said, ‘Sasthri, you’ve got to make time’.” “He had God-given talent. He had inner kindness and generosity. He was a humanitarian and gave so much of time to the disadvantaged.” Even with his growing reputation as a skilled specialist Nielhaan never entertained the thought of practising overseas as he loved his country too
much. “He had a lot of friends and loved his lifestyle,” says Sasthri. “He simply
loved people and wanted to be with them.” Thanks to Nielhaan’s empathy for
people the many in need benefited a great deal from his kindness and dedication as he worked to improve their lives without personal gain. Patients consulted him free of charge and he was much-loved for that. Through all his endeavours he was well-supported by wife Dilko, daughter Oshadhi and son Kaveesha. His children are now following his footsteps in the medical world and the indelible example they have received from their father is to be generous to the people in need. And in the end, through his work and exemplary life Nielhaan reached his full measure as a man.
In his station in life, he showed he had heart And how well he played his God- given part He was ever ready with a word of good cheer To bring back a smile, to banish a tear. These are the things that measure the worth Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.