Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the almost always good son of school teachers, he felt a weight of unspoken familial expectation to turn his prodigious academic talents towards medicine.
“If you do well at school in Sri Lanka, there is an expectation that you will become a doctor, because it is such a highly regarded profession,” Kelum says.
“My actual passion was engineering, but there was some expectation that I would pursue medicine if I could, so I was a good boy and I went along.”
While he fell into medicine as a consequence of his intellect, he was hooked by the challenge and breadth of medicine almost immediately.
“I literally enjoyed every minute of my medical education. There was not a single day I felt tired or unhappy. Studying alongside similar-minded people, working hard together and then having a little bit of fun every now and then was good,” Kelum says.
“I loved medical school and that is one of the reasons I wanted to keep teaching, to be a part of that environment.”
After completing medical training, physician training and a specialisation in renal medicine in Sri Lanka, the world beckoned. Kelum had been awarded a scholarship to work in England at the end of his nephrology training in 2005, but had found both the weather and the work culture too frosty. Pointing his compass in the opposite direction, he took up a scholarship in Melbourne, and was astonished by the difference.
“I went to Royal Melbourne Hospital and it was December, so the weather was hot and familiar and the people were very warm too. We were invited to the Professor’s house straight away, on the first night we arrived, whereas when I was in London, no-one even wanted to talk to us at work,” Kelum says.
“I thought, this is a significantly different country, and that’s the day I thought I wanted to come to Australia.”
He moved to Adelaide for a two-year fellowship, but obligation beckoned. To fulfill the requirements of his training, Dr Priyadarshana had to work for a time back in Sri Lanka, so he returned to the beautiful seaside city of Galle.
“I was the only nephrologist, serving a population of 3.5 million people and had to build a renal service from scratch,” Kelum says.
“I applied a lot of knowledge that I had learned in Australia and set about getting the equipment, training nurses and doctors and establishing a renal service and its eight-chair dialysis unit.”
The work was extremely rewarding, but after getting the unit up and running, he was tired of spending five days a week away from his family and wanted to regain some life balance, so headed to Australia again in 2012: this time moving to Darwin via a short stint at Mt Gambier.
While there wasn’t an element of chance in the pathway leading Kelum to medicine, it is clear he has found his calling.
Working alongside his wife at Flinders, and recently appointed Clinical Dean, Kelum has become accustomed to wearing many hats, and thrives in the NT where there continues to be a need for innovative solutions delivered with often limited resources.
He is closely involved in service planning and policy development with the Northern Territory Government; serves as Clinical Lead in Renal Outreach and Telehealth Services with NT Renal Services, and has designed and led Territory-wide changes in health systems, particularly in ambulatory care and virtual care. He also maintains an active role in clinical research, in partnership with Charles Darwin University’s Menzies School of Health Research.
“All this gives me a great sense of satisfaction as they come into fruition, but there is so much more to do,” Kelum says.
While wearing many hats, and with an apparently endless vista of health system challenges ahead, the hard-working young man from Colombo is now in a place where he can practice, stay involved in medical education through the Northern Territory Medical Program and still salvage a little work-life balance.
“There have been a couple of times we thought about moving to Adelaide and other cities, but we always come back and say that we have a better life in Darwin,” Kelum says.
“I get to teach general medicine and renal medicine and am also heavily involved in planning curriculum and programs for the NTMP.
“Royal Darwin Hospital is a friendly place and has a focus on encouraging people. There is a better culture of listening to what clinicians have to say than in some other hospitals.
“On Saturday nights we book out some badminton courts and a group of about 20 of our friends from Royal Darwin Hospital play.
“On weekends I sometimes get to drive my daughters around for sport, watching them swim and play weekend games. They are good things for a dad to do.”
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