By Valerie Thompson, CVT volunteer
When you speak with Dr. Dinali Fernando you get the impression that she thrives in a certain controlled chaos. You know immediately that she is enthusiastic, animated and very, very passionate.
“I had done my public health thesis on FGC (female genital circumcision),” says Fernando, who had come out of medical school with an interest in Emergency Medicine. “I first started working with immigrants when I requested placement in a torture treatment center for the community based component of my psychiatry rotation in medical school.”
“I was completely blown away by the patients,” says Fernando. “One of the first patients I saw was a girl with such severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that she was completely catatonic. It was the first time I had encountered catatonia. Hearing her story, and witnessing her case was incredibly powerful – it stayed with me,” she says… and she was hooked.
During those first encounters while completing her residency in Emergency Medicine, Fernando was inspired by her two mentors, Dr. Lars Beattie and Dr. Rajeev Bais, who had started the Libertas Center at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, Fernando says. “They started the Libertas Center, conducting forensic evaluations of torture survivors and writing medical and mental health affidavits on their own time,” she says. “That is how I got involved working with torture survivors.” She was so moved by their work and their experience that she continued after her academic requirements were fulfilled.
That experience lead to her decision to continue giving to the community. “I was drawn to Elmhurst Hospital because of the patient population,” says Fernando, with its many languages, cultures, and large immigrant population. “It was the community I wanted to serve.”
Eventually the mentors moved away and Fernando took over their work at Libertas. She is now the Medical Director. “As an Emergency Medicine specialist, it is so important that by asking the right questions, we identify survivors of torture when they first come through our Emergency Room doors. We are a ‘port of entry’ into the healthcare system for this population” she says.
Libertas is housed in an annex building of Elmhurst Hospital to offer a separate, calm, and private atmosphere. “We provide medical and mental healthcare and social support for our patients,” she says, and connect them with legal and social services. “We may have up to 75 patients at any given time. We have a small, but very dedicated staff,” she says.
“We are lucky to be located in a public hospital accustomed to dealing with a large immigrant, refugee and undocumented population, attuned to their needs.”
"Our patients are amazing. They have been through hell and back. They come to you and they are not complaining,” she says with feeling. “They are just trying to watch out for themselves and their families. Their resilience is inspiring,” she continues, now getting excited. “This is my biggest motivating factor: helping them heal”.
“These patients are very strong, very smart, and very resourceful. They were often advocates in their own countries and were persecuted because of this,” she says, now on a roll. “And any way we can help them will only add to the richness of our community.”
Dr. Fernando was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Oman, and moved back to Sri Lanka where she attended an international high school. At 16, she and her older sister left for the United States to attend college in western Massachusetts. “The only way my parents agreed to send us to the U.S. was if we went together.” says Fernando. “We went to an all-women’s Catholic school where my parents were assured it was a safe learning environment for us. It was a very small town so we had nothing to do but study.”
Early on she knew she wanted to go to medical school. “My dad had heart problems and had to go England for heart surgery. It was life changing. He lived for many years because he was lucky to have had the opportunity for that medical care. So many people don’t have that access or opportunity,” she adds. “This is what brought me to medicine: I wanted to work to bridge the health-care disparity.”
The hardest part of her job, she says, is hearing the stories of torture survivors. “Their trauma is severe; many are worried for their children or have lost family members. Working in the field of trauma, hearing this day in and day out can be very difficult. We need a good support system to lean on when we are tired. The greatest challenge is that there is so much work to be done. It’s difficult to find a balance in it all.”
Dr. Fernando hopes to continue to serve the community for which she has such an affinity. “We’re lucky,” she says, “that New York has 3 torture treatment programs (we’re the only program in Queens), but there is still a huge need in New York City.” She wants to continue, for there is so much to do. “I would like to find new innovative ways to deliver client directed services. The teaching hospital is a setting with great opportunity to increase awareness and teach future service providers the necessary skills in caring for torture survivors.” She says there is increased interest by medical students and residents in diagnosing and treating survivors of torture. The interest “makes me happy. I had really great mentors who did it for the right reasons -- to do what is right for the patients.” We all hope she can similarly inspire young residents.