Celebrating 25 years of impact and partnership in the NT

Anatomy of success, with Associate Professor Buddhika Weerasundera

New approaches to make the study and dissection of cadavers more culturally safe for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have been developed in the Northern Territory Medical Program.

While generations of medical students have struggled with the emotions of meeting and dissecting their first dead person as part of their studies of anatomy, Associate Professor Buddhika Weerasundera recognised that additional support was required for Aboriginal students dealing with the dead. “I was so proud to have students from the very first cohort of the NTMP who were Aboriginal. I taught them anatomy, and they also taught me lots of things,” Buddhika says. “They described how it was very special to work with a dead body and also explained how it was a significant cultural challenge to take on cadaver teaching. I learned from them the importance of sensitising students to cadaver teaching and that is something now used by everybody here.”

Warm, humble and enthusiastic, Buddhika had an appreciation for some of the challenges of being an outsider in the medical arena.

After training as a doctor in Colombo, Sri Lanka, she was only the third woman to study forensic pathology in Sri Lanka and absorbed the challenges of moving into a male-dominated world. Even her family struggled to understand why such a talented, vivacious person would devote her time to the morgue, even though TV crime shows were just starting to make the field more popular in some countries.

“When I told my father I was getting into forensic pathology, he said, ‘I raised a daughter to look after the sick, not to be with the dead,’” Buddhika recalls. “I went into that field because it was a time of war in Sri Lanka and there were so many events occurring in the world, I wanted to understand what was going on. I never had the intention of making it a career, but I saw it was a very multidisciplinary field and you become the voice of the dead.

“If you have good ethics, you will stand up for what is correct and testify in court as to what is wrong. Nobody can buy you. It is very important to be the voice of people who have passed away.”

Buddhika embarked on an international career in forensic pathology, training in Australia and the UK before taking up roles across Southeast Asia and heading up the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka.

After more than a decade of training and building up an extraordinary CV, Buddhika arrived in Darwin on sabbatical with her husband and, with typical selflessness, decided to stay so that her husband could pursue his career and she might spend more time with their children. Within months her career break had become a metamorphosis, as she was snapped up by Flinders to teach anatomy just as the Northern Territory Medical Program started in 2011.

“I hadn’t taught anatomy, and as a forensic pathologist I was mainly interested in the investigative aspect of it, but it was very interesting to refresh my undergraduate knowledge of anatomy,” Buddhika says. “In Sri Lanka I had had 200 students per class, but here it was a small cohort, with just 24 students. I knew not just their names, but their family backgrounds and how they were doing each day. It was like one big family. “I will always remember the first cohort that graduated: it was very special to me, almost like watching my own children graduate! That’s the kind of passion that we all have for medical education here. There are a lot of things you have to do that are not included in the job description.

“Every morning when I get ready for work, my husband and children tell me that I am having too much fun and getting paid for it, it shouldn’t be called work!

“I do miss forensic pathology, it is really interesting and I studied that field because it is multidisciplinary – and I think I would consider going back to that field on a voluntary basis after I retire, but in life you get taken in different directions, and I love the fact that we moved to Darwin. I had been to Australia before, for training in Melbourne but when we landed in Darwin it felt like going from Colombo to another area of Sri Lanka. There isn’t much traffic, it is a very multicultural city and the people in Darwin are so warm – and so is the climate! Now when I go to the hospital, I walk down a corridor and will hear someone shouting, ‘Hey Buddhika, what are you doing here?’ It will be one of our students. They are busy working in their various disciplines but always find time for a greeting, recalling how I worked with them during their student days.

“I always encourage students to leave the NT if they want further experience and to specialise, but also to come back. We are proud that more than 50 per cent of our graduates choose to stay in the NT after the return to service obligation and we can grow the number of health professionals here by recruiting the right people. I am so happy that I can be part of growing the health workforce in the NT, and to contribute even in the smallest possible way.”

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