An Interview with Dr. Thyagi Ponnamperuma
By Lidija Rakic, scholar at The HLA
During my medical internship in Sri Lanka, I have met a lot of very inspiring women. One of them is Dr. Thyagi Ponnamperuma. We met on a field trip where we visited the first training clinic in family medicine in Galle. During her career, she had to make several choices to get where she wanted to be. This is a vital element of good personal leadership.
I decided to talk to Dr Thyagi about her experience.
1996-2002 Medical student, University of Ruhuna Sri Lanka
2002-2003 Medical internship
2003-2004 Medical officer, Regional Director of Health Service (RDHS), Galle
2006-2008 Master in Philosophy, Maastricht University, The Netherlands
2009-2011 Diploma in Family Medicine
2013- 2019 PhD , Maastricht University, The Netherlands
What was your first job?
My first job was as a medical officer in public health (RDHS office) in Galle.
Was that what you wanted?
Not really, I had aimed for a career in hospital medicine, this was not my first choice. In this job there were a lot of meetings and a lot of administration, I had wanted to do a more clinical job.
One month after I started this job, we were unfortunate to be hit by a tsunami. From there on my work got much busier, there were more things I now needed to arrange. I coordinated all the health related teams who came to Galle, Sri Lanka to help. There were many teams from around the world, that had to be brought together. This was quite a task. People came and went, I worked very long days. I really wanted to do something for all that had been affected. At that time my husband and myself also had a GP-practice in our house where we treated minor injuries. I really enjoyed this job; it was very dynamic.
What was your next step in career?
I actually ended up at the Department of Community Medicine. I received great feedback about my role during the tsunami. At that time, a vacancy was advertised to join the Community Medicine Department. Initially, this was not something I had wanted, but I somehow made my choice to join. I actually enjoyed it a lot and soon after other paths opened up.
A professor from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands exempted a scholarship for a postgraduate post in the Netherlands. So, I applied and got in! During this period I was also pregnant. After a very stressful period sorting visas, my husband, baby and I moved to the Netherlands. Everything was so different over there, we had difficulties with the language, with the weather, actually with everything. But later on we adjusted, and we stayed for two years. After that, I also started my PhD in Maastricht University. Then I continued to go back and forth to the Netherlands for research.
Did you miss the clinical work?
After a while, I really wanted to do more clinical work; eventually, I managed to get into family medicine. Unfortunately, during this period my mother and father got very ill. This changed a lot, it was a tough period of my life.
And now you are setting up the speciality Family Medicine at your University?
Yes, family medicine was previously not a speciality at our University. I now developed the curriculum for our university. I am happy because we got the approval and from next year we are going to start lecturing in family medicine at the University. Meanwhile, we have also set up a training clinic for the students where they can be trained in family practice. We are expecting our first batch of students to come next year! The future is to expand as a speciality, in the final year exam.
What do you do to relax?
I practice yoga and play the piano. I also enjoy watching films now and then.
What would you recommend to ambitious young doctors?
Commit yourself, don’t ever think that you can’t do something! And also do not neglect your family, they always come first. I have always tried to do this.
Is there anything you regret? Is there something you would have done differently?
Well, I used to have regrets but I am now very satisfied with how things are going.
I wanted to do paediatrics at first, but the downside was that I wouldn’t be able to spend time with my family since the practice would be very demanding. I made a choice to spend more time with my family and find the clinical roles in another speciality of medicine. For me, that is family medicine. I really enjoy the clinical part in family medicine, so now I don’t regret it anymore.
The Family Practice Center, Thalapitiya, Faculty of medicine, University of Ruhuna