Te Kuiti doctor a world-beater
Sri Lankan-born doctor Sanjeevan Pasupati has been wowing the New Zealand medical world, carrying out first-ever procedures at Waikato Hospital.
But his father and long-time Te Kuiti doctor Jega, will never forget that it was the Te Kuiti community who gave him and his family an incentive to stay in the country.
When Jega came to New Zealand in 1988 with two of his children; Sanjeevan and his older sister Nishkala, they came with the intention to stay, however were told this would be a temporary post of two years.
At this time Jega and his wife Nimala had well-regarded and sought after positions at a teaching hospital in their homeland.
But Te Kuiti Hospital management recognised the couple’s talent and pursued the medical duo – Jega a consultant physician and his wife a consultant obstetrician gynaecologist.
“At that time it was standard procedure to keep job vacancies free for Kiwis, so they only wanted us for two years,” said Jega.
However, the doctor resolved there was no way he and Nimala were going to leave their good jobs in Sri Lanka for a two-year working holiday – although the small town hospitality had already suitably impressed.
After talking to his eldest brother, who was working in Auckland as an oncologist, Jega was convinced to give New Zealand a go, but it was going to be an expensive exercise.
“At that time Nimala was based in the Middle East taking advantage of its stronger currency to put our eldest son Pradheepan through university in the UK,” tells Jega.
“But there was increasing unrest in Sri Lanka, and we were prepared to make these sacrifices – both financially and in leaving our home country – for our children.”
So Jega and his two children moved into a hospital house in Ailsa St.
Nishkala was already halfway through medical school in Sri Lanka, but couldn’t continue study or begin work in New Zealand until the family’s paperwork arrived.
So to stay involved in the profession, she began work at Te Kuiti Hospital as a volunteer nurse.
However, Jega and Nimala were still restricted by their working permits and not considered to have permanent residency in New Zealand.
But Te Kuiti Hospital weren’t prepared to let the couple go, and said they would support all endeavours to stay in the town.
Having made a final decision to call Te Kuiti home, Jega wrote a letter to then health minister Helen Clark, only to receive a reply three days later.
“The minister very quickly replied to my letter and said she would ensure the ministry removed the two-year restriction and that she recognised specialists like myself could help other New Zealanders,” said Jega.
“She welcomed me to New Zealand.”
By this time Nimala had joined her family in Te Kuiti and taken up a position at the local hospital alongside her husband.
Meanwhile, Sanjeevan had already finished high school in Sri Lanka, but wanted to carry out a second senior year in New Zealand to be eligible to enter New Zealand university.
Against the advice of extended family, Jega and Sanjeevan both opted for this school year to be carried out at Te Kuiti High School, rather than Auckland Grammar School.
“Te Kuiti High School provided the perfect opportunity for what Sanjeevan wanted to achieve during the year,” said Jega.
“He wanted to learn and the teachers wanted to teach him. The classes were small and he could have a lot more one-on-one time with the staff.”
“I really enjoyed my time at Te Kuiti High School,” said Sanjeevan.
“The teachers were great and there were only a few students in each class, so I didn’t feel lost like I might have at a bigger school.”
Needless to say, he thrived, being awarded the title of school dux at the end of 1989. Consequentially, on his performance of the university entrance exam, Sanjeevan was offered preferential entry into medical school at Otago University.
Shortly after, the family were awarded permanent residency; Nishkala was accepted into third year medical school and is now a partner at Hamilton East Medical Centre, and Sanjeevan started study at Otago University.
Meanwhile, their parents continued to serve the North King Country community at the local hospital where Jega was the only specialist and on-call 24/7.
Today, Jega is living in Hamilton where he moved after Nimala died in 1998.
However, unable to stay away from his true New Zealand home, he has come out of retirement to work four days per week in Te Kuiti and Taumarunui Hospitals, holding clinics and ward rounds. And now, it is his son’s time to shine.
After three years of medical theory study in Otago and three years of clinical practice in Wellington where he sat his fellowship exams in 1995, Sanjeevan completed his cardiology training in Greenlane hospital followed by a locum cardiologist post at Auckland City Hospital.
He had always wanted to be a surgeon, however his karate hobby put an end to that dream with the damage endured by his knuckles during the years.
Having completed his three months as a locum, Sanjeev said he wanted to extend himself further and undertook18 months of research into the specialised field of cardiology.
The New Zealand Heart Foundation gave him a scholarship to undertake two years of interventional cardiology training in Vancouver.
This Vancouver cardiology training is highly regarded and upon completion of this training, Sanjeevan was offered jobs all over the world. But he wanted to bring his skills home.
“New Zealand is where I received the scholarship that enabled me to carry out the training, and is a country that needs these kinds of resources,” said Sanjeevan.
“It was very important to me that I bring my teachings back here.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
During his time in Canada, Sanjeevan performed multiple procedures that have never been performed in Australasia before, let alone the Waikato.
One of these is the percutaneous aortic valve replacement. This is where the cardiologist is able insert an aortic valve without having to open up the chest or putting the patient on cardiopulmonary bypass.
Here in the Waikato, Sanjeevan has performed closure of a hole in the heart percutaneously without opening the chest. Thanks to Sanjeevan, the patient was discharged on the same day, due to a greatly minimised recovery period.
Another Waikato-first performed by Sanjeevan, was an aortic valvuloplasty on a 77-year-old Thames man. This procedure involves inserting a balloon into a narrowed aortic valve in the heart, in order to dilate it.
A woman aged in her 60s was able to evade surgery after suffering dizziness, chest pains and breathing difficulties due to an abnormal thickening of her heart muscle. Sanjeevan performed a transcoronary ethanol septal ablation, or break down of abnormally thick heart muscle on the women, where he injected ethanol (pure alcohol) into a portion of her heart, causing a controlled heart attack, which then caused the thickened muscle to die.
This meant surgery was not necessary and in this case, the women returned to her sporting activities within one week.
“Angioplasty still takes up about 80 per cent of my time,” said Sanjeevan.
“But Waikato Hospital has allowed me the opportunity to use my training for the good of people who really need it.
“Our cardiology department provides excellent care for our patients, and adding such procedures not only improves the versatility of our service but also provides access to specialised therapy locally.”
Although Sanjeevan hasn’t been able to return to Te Kuiti since his return from Vancouver, due to a busy work schedule, he says he would like to.
“Te Kuiti is my home. Many people there still know me. That is my home.”
Date: 29 August 2008