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This Doctor Can: Max Perera

For South Asian Heritage Month, physician associate, Maximin Indrajith Perera, talks about his journey into medicine – from Colombo in Sri Lanka, to Torquay in England.

My parents – Elizabeth, a nurse, and Joseph, a police officer – were living in a suburb of Colombo when they had me, their first child, in 1968. They moved away from Colombo a year later, it was Katuneriya, further up Sri Lanka’s west coast, that I called home, moving to live with my grandparents and aunt Annie. I grew up in a small house with a smallholding in the garden that housed pigs, bulls, and chickens, offering a plentiful supply of eggs.

I would not change my childhood for anything, growing up in an age where there were no electronic devices apart from the family radio. The day would last as long as the sun would stay up, with no light bulbs – only kerosene lamps to light the table at dinner.

I spent my days playing with other children in the village, getting into trouble, collecting fruit from the woods, swimming in the river and anything else that might keep me entertained. 

Every now and then, I would go to the paddy field with my grandad. I still remember laughing as I rode on his shoulders all the way to the river and back, feeling like I was on top of the world. On a good day, we’d end up with a basket of fish that he had caught. With my huge smile and extreme sense of pride, I would then be allowed to present our catch my grandma. She would smile back, and cook the best curry in the world with the fish we’d caught that day.

I am 52 years old and have travelled around so many countries, sampling the finest cuisine; to this day, I’ve still never tasted cooking better than hers. 

In 1980, I started secondary school and soon discovered an interest in medicine. I quickly realised that my academic performance might not be able to match this ambition. I was a bright kid, but found more appeal in working outside of the classroom than studying. I got good grades, but not what was needed for medical school. I considered following in my father’s footsteps as a police officer, but was told I was half an inch too short to join the force!

I decided to embark on nursing training. I made new, lifelong friends and enjoyed the freedom of working away from home. It was there that I fell in love with one of my fellow students. We became good friends, and eventually she became my lifelong companion – my wife.  

We graduated in 1991 and so began the next stage of my life. I had my first experience of being a fully qualified nurse in Colombo, working in the National Hospital’s neurosurgery unit. I was thrown into nursing headfirst and saw, first-hand, the impact that the battle against terrorism was having on the soldiers and civilians, treating everything, including head and spinal injuries. I decided I couldn’t sit around and just observe any more. I had to be in the action; I had to help – that’s when I took the decision to join the army.

Officer training at the Military Academy was possibly the most physically challenging year of my life. Life in the army was probably exactly what you’d expect: waking up at dawn, running for longer than any human should ever be running, polishing shoes until they were shinier than any diamond you could buy from a jewellery shop, being shouted at by men with big moustaches and even bigger feelings of authority.

It wasn’t easy, but I made it, and in July 1993, I was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Pioneer Corps.

My military life was full of great experiences, but things became more ‘real’ when I started to see the dangers of war first-hand. My best friend was killed in action, which was painful in ways I do not have the words to express.

Meanwhile my wife, Kumari, had different, bigger dreams. She set her sights on travelling from our homeland, and she soon got a nursing job in Oman. In 1997, I resigned from my commission to join her there. In the months leading my move to Oman, I re-joined the National Hospital, working in the neurosurgical theatre, simultaneously lecturing in a few private nursing trainings.  

Our life in Oman really started to look up – we had a house, good jobs, fresh vegetables to feed us and, most importantly, our first child – a beautiful baby girl called Vimukthi.  

We loved living in Oman and bringing up our daughter there: the bustling markets, the delicious food, the culture of giving and welcoming, the friendliest, warmest people you’ll meet and the beautiful, clean streets. The hospitals were state of the art and the scenery and architecture would take your breath away. But as foreigners in Oman, our jobs were never secure – we were effectively just placeholders until a national citizen was qualified to take that job. 

With that in mind, we decided to take a huge leap and set our sights on building a new life in England. We surrounded ourselves with the English language, set on the idea that we had to improve our skills so that we would be able to tackle the interviews with as little accent as possible. You would walk into our little villa and be immediately hit by the sound of BBC World News, which would play every hour of every day in the background.

We spent every minute we could reading, writing, applying and reapplying to jobs. We failed many times, but we only needed one success, which finally came along in 2001, in the form of a stable job and a full UK Central Council for Nursing membership. Once we eventually made the move to England, I trained as a physician associate, settling first in Ipswich and then in Torquay, where we started to build a new life, had two more beautiful children, and have lived ever since.