Home' Greymouth Star : September 15th 2015 Contents Greymouth Star
Tuesday, September 15, 2015 - 7
PICTURE: Laura Mills
Lasantha Martinus on the Grey River floodwall in Greymouth.
Doctor at large
Greymouth doctor Lasantha Martinus these days rails against alleged injustices and failures in the health system. A
doctor at Grey Base Hospital for six years, he turned to medicine after re-learning English. LAURA MILLS met the
softly spoken man behind the strongly-worded letters to the editor.
asantha Martinus was born
in Sri Lanka, the son of a
psychiatrist. At 18 months old
the family went to England
but returned after only two
He grew up reading textbooks — often
biology or history; there were no children’s
story books in the house.
The family moved to New Zealand in
1973. His father, who had been wanting
to work overseas, grabbed the chance of
a vacancy at the Cherry Farm psychiatric
hospital in D unedin.
The young Lasantha was less keen to
emigrate, but the visa required the whole
family to go, and when flights became
available they had to leave immediately
— one night to pack, and no time for
goodbyes. In those days, they were allowed
to carry only a tiny amount of cash out of
Lasantha landed in Christchurch with just
a few words of English, having not spoken
the language since he was about 10.
“It was a bit of a shock to the system,” he
Yet, their new neighbours had welcomed
the family warmly, filling their cupboards
with food. Lasantha started at the local
school and found that language, once his
strong point, was hard. He was just 14. But
he learned to read gestures, and eventually
the words came.
He spent holidays working as a nurse
aide in the dementia ward of a psychiatric
hospital. Upon leaving school, he had a
number of reasons for going to medical
school at the University of Otago. His father
wanted it, for one. He had also personally
had a bad experience with a doctor, which
left him refusing to go to one, but he did
enjoy learning, he says.
After two years as a house surgeon, there
were stints in various hospitals — Australia,
and closer to home, in Dannevirke.
“One shift lasted from Monday morning
until I went back home on Saturday
morning. I slept in a little apartment on top
of accident and emergency.”
He wanted to specialise in general
medicine in a smaller hospital, and so he
headed to Rotorua to learn more of the
“One doctor there had done a lot more
training, and he made a lot less mistakes.”
Stints followed at all the Auckland
hospitals, including Greenlane and
Middlemore. While there the doctor hours
were changed, and he believes that led to
He trained so thoroughly it took eight
years, rather than the standard five. He took
a post in Victoria, with his wife about to
give birth to their third child. She needed
to be induced and he came back to be at
her side, and found she had lost 5kg in just
five days. In her bedside cabinet he found
a cordial containing sucrose, a rehydration
fluid, which probably prolonged her gastric
The family ended up in Sydney. He worked
doing fitness and tilt table tests on people
prone to funny turns. He held clinics at
GP surgeries for people with a complicated
medical history, and later helped people
avoid becoming those complex cases.
Involved in athletics — his children’s club
in Sydney had 350 athletes when he started,
and more than 550 when he left Australia
— he devised a system so that he and his
wife could input the 1200 to 2000 weekly
results, then rank children, so those who
turned up, and tried hard, were rewarded.
But his wife, a New Zealander, longed to
come home. A job was going in Greymouth
in 2004, and by chance, a doctor whom
Lasantha admired from his days in Rotorua
was there. Lasantha had only been to the
West Coast once before.
It is hard to report Lasantha’s story from
Grey Base Hospital for legal reasons. There
are accusations, some of which have already
played out before the coroner. He has also
assisted patients with complaints to the
Health and Disability Commissioner.
It is clear he genuinely believes that
mistakes were made, and more mistakes
when the cases were investigated. He
claims he was offered leave when his father
had a stroke in 2010. Before he left, the
Canterbury chief medical officer came and
he was told, “I had to leave the hospital and
was not allowed to come back”.
These days, Lasantha Martinus is well
known for his regular letters to the editor
of the Greymouth Star. He also lobbies
“I wouldn’t do it unless I had to,” he says.
“ I’ve tried the system, the unions and been
through the Medical Council.”
His goals are to “make things open”.
He believes that in some cases of alleged
negligence, the police should investigate.
For example, when a doctor is on full pay to
be on call after hours but does not see the
patient, or when obviously wrong treatment
is given by those without appropriate
He argues for greater super vision of
graduates, and that learning goes far beyond
what you swot for in exams.
“ Most doctors don’t seem to have received
the guidance I received,” he says.
People in medicine need to understand
the limits of their own knowledge, and work
as a team. Super vision, he says, should be
welcomed — not feared.
For now, Lasantha wants to remain on the
West Coast and increase public awareness.
So does he miss practising medicine?
He explains that he now gets time to learn
things he would not normally have time
to do . . . and he never liked seeing people
“I don’t miss that part.”
He will stay on the Coast, he says, “until
the justice system does something”.
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