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Ageing, ageism, photography, stories

7th February 2017

Dr. Wickremesinghe, 75

Dr. Wickremesinghe, known as ‘Jimmy Wickers’ to his patients, qualified in medicine in Sri Lanka, before continuing his training in the UK. He currently works as a GP at his practice in Stockwell, and up until 2006, also worked as a breast cancer surgeon and an endoscopist.

“I think medicine has always been in my blood; the majority of my family members are in the medical profession and my Dad was awarded an OBE and CMG by the Queen in the 50s for his contribution to eradicating malaria in Sri Lanka, where we grew up. I moved to the UK once I’d qualified. It wasn’t a culture shock; as a British colony I feel we were bought up to be more English than the English in a way!

The most important lesson I’ve learnt is to act with honesty, integrity and fairness with everyone you meet in life.

I met my wife at the Mayday hospital in Croydon in the mid 70s; she was a nurse there at the time and we’ve lived in Dulwich Village since 1980. The house is halfway between the hospital I worked at up to the age of 65 and the surgery where I still practice today. I’ve been at the NHS for 49 years so next year will be a bit of a landmark. I have seen families grow, relatives pass and new babies being born which creates a special bond as a doctor. As a cancer surgeon; I didn’t have that type of long-term bond with my patients, although from a purely technical and medical perspective that was perhaps when I felt most inspired by my work.

I have a brother who is a cardiologist in Australia and if I had my time again, I think I would live over there; the work balance is much better and it’s more conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Having said that, I do believe that life has a path and things tend to work out and settle as they should so I tend to try and avoid regrets when I can. It’s a waste of valuable energy. I was also invited to work over in America but I’m pleased I didn’t go. The medical system there is very fractured and it’s more of a commercial proposition. I work in quite a deprived area and I think it’s important that patients get the treatment required irrespective of their ability to pay.

I know it sounds strange for a doctor but I’m a bit lazy when it comes to exercise and find it hard to stick to a regime. I like swimming but I don’t like the pools in England, the water is too cold – so I just do a bit of walking and sometimes play tennis. I am blessed that every day I come back to a home-cooked meal from my wife Kath. She eats quite healthily so as a result I do too. I probably drink a bit too much; a couple of glasses of wine every evening, and the occasional gin and tonic, but I gave up smoking about 15 years ago. I was a heavy smoker, but I only started in my 30s. I used to bring duty free cigarettes back from my travels for my friends then eventually I started myself!

My job has taught me that you never know what people are going through behind closed doors.

I haven’t really noticed ageism. We don’t go by chronological age in my profession; biological age is more important. There are 60 year olds who are quite ill, while there are 90 year olds who are very fit, playing golf and living the life of Riley. As far as my work goes, patients tend to associate age with experience – at least that’s my impression, so in practice it can even be a positive thing. One thing I do notice is loneliness. I have a lot of patients in their 80s or 90s living isolated in tower blocks, lots of them with no family or with children who can’t be bothered to visit. This is a growing problem in England. There is no community cohesion. In Asian culture, older people are more respected and integrated into everyday family life. I think we can learn from this in the Western world.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt is to act with honesty, integrity and fairness with everyone you meet in life. And always be kind. My job has taught me that you never know what people are going through behind closed doors. I also think family is key. I always encourage big get-togethers at our home. Our two children, Nick and Katy, live in Battersea, so we are lucky to see them a lot – now we’re just waiting for some grandchildren! All our contemporaries have them and we are very envious.

My life motto? Health is wealth.

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