Find out what motivates Dr Damitha Ratnasinghe, consultant paediatrician, to volunteer his spare time caring for patients at Skanda Vale Hospice.
My name is Didi. Doctor Damitha Ratnasinghe is my official name, but everyone calls me Didi. I’m a consultant paediatrician – so I’m a child specialist doctor, and I’ve been working in West London, in Hounslow Borough there, since 1999.
And I moved to Glangwili Hospital in Carmarthen. A vacancy was advertised and as soon as I saw ‘Carmarthen’ on there, I thought ‘Yes!’ This is the opportunity to come and be closer to both the Skanda Vale Monastery as well as the Hospice. As soon as I settled down at my new job I applied to become a carer, a voluntary carer.
Your work here at the hospice is of a very simple nature, compared to your work at the hospital. How do you find the two complement each other?
They do, they do. Simple… rolling somebody from one side of the bed to the other, checking that there are no bed sores or redness (to hail the arrival of a bed sore) or being able to reconnect a catheter that’s become disconnected over the night, and change those sheets that have then become soiled – things like that.
Or like we did just now – make the suppers, make the sandwiches, make the omelettes, all those things… they do complement; they are an integral part of a person’s life and wellbeing.
A lot of the time I find an opportunity for reflection and introspection.
In some ways it’s like having a bit of light relief. For me it doesn’t feel as intense as what I do in my NHS job; looking after sick babies. So this gets me out of that.
And then seeing a whole host of new friends, new people, new colleagues that I can admire and love, and share experiences with… it’s a new horizon that has complemented my life. I look forward to these monthly things.
And of course in the fullness of time when I can become a part-time doctor, or even retire in the next 20 years or so, I’ll see myself doing more and more. This is only the beginning.
What do you think you’ve learnt from being here?
It’s humbling… mostly that. Because it puts my life into perspective. It’s the common denominator for where we all wind up, at some point in our lives, needing to reach out for the love and care of somebody else.
It becomes the final common denominator for all of us. No matter how rich and successful and educated and arrogant we might be, eventually we’ve got to succumb to what life throws at us. And this is something that makes me humble. Yes, the best way to say it, is that it grounds me in the love of God.
So it complements very much the activities of the temple and ashram?
Yes, because with the meditation, the pujas, the realisation of God, the praise of God and all His and Her virtues, we become aware (at least theoretically) about God in all His and Her manifestations.
But to me that seems very superficial, until we put that love and understanding into practice. And then we see the faces, and look into the eyes of the people who are going to be seeing God soon – who are going to make that final journey soon. And then realising that it’s not bad. It’s not such a bad thing.
Death, or nearness to death, can become healing, can become a time to appreciate. A time to slowly give up your desires and give up your long-held possessions and cravings.
Giving up without giving in. Giving up with grace, and then appreciating the love of God. I see that in the eyes of the brave friends we look after here, and that helps me to becomes even more devoted. So it becomes a hand in glove… you know, like two things just working together; a devotee in the ashram, a volunteer here. It becomes two faces of that same coin, without which the coin cannot really be proper.
For me, the Skanda Vale ethos, the Skanda Vale philosophy, shines head and shoulders above anything else that we might have come across.
It would have been so easy just to sit and meditate as a clergyman. I’ve seen that in many other scenarios. But going that other step, to then do something as laudable as this takes a lot of effort. A lot of commitment.
And ultimately it is what makes this place so much more than what I have seen before. So that’s what I see. It’s something that is a lot more than just a group of clergy; a community, or ashram, or monastery (or whatever we call it) worshipping God. It’s a practical application of that.
And then giving people like me the opportunity then to benefit, in my own journey, in a way that I could never have done by simply offering some flowers and some dal, and worshipping God and saying the aarthis.
What’s your experience of the nursing care and the clinical side of things here at the hospice?
It’s fantastic. The nurses who are coming to work here find it much more satisfying than the hugely understaffed, overworked situations that they’ve come from. That’s the biggest thing that I’m seeing.
The nurses find that they are much more able to give of their care, their time and their dedication here. Because they’re not rushed off their feet all the time.
Thanks Didi. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’m a little bit surprised about why there aren’t many more devotees doing this. I suspect that a lot of them are coming from very far away, and that might be a reason. Others may not be aware that it’s so straight forward.
You know, it’s not complicated to be a carer. The DBS documentation for the Criminal Records Bureau check – that’s pretty routine. Getting two referees who know you – it could be a friend who’s known you for a few years, and maybe a work colleague.
The process is very straight forward. And if you don’t want to handle patients you could vacuum the floor, you could mop, you could make sandwiches – there are so many things one could do.
And there is accommodation. No matter where in the country you live… come and stay, it’s beautiful. We get fed, we get watered, we get well looked after. We can’t ask for anything more.