Sunil J. Wimalawansa, MD, PhD, MBA, DSc
Professor of Medicine, Endocrinology & Nutrition, retired
University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey
North Brunswick, NJ
Academic endocrinologist Sunil J. Wimalawansa, MD, PhD, MBA, DSc (Class of 2006), is busy in his early retirement. During his career, Dr. Wimalawansa received awards recognizing his endocrinology and osteoporosis research and humanitarian contributions, including the Dr. Boy Frame Award for Clinical Excellence in Metabolic Bone Diseases, American Endocrine Society Glen Foundation Award, and an innovation award from the Asian Chamber of Commerce. In 2007, the International Society for Clinical Densitometry recognized his charitable contributions with the Dr. Oscar Gluck Humanitarian Award. He’s currently investigating a highly cost-effective micronutrient supplement for pregnant women in his native Sri Lanka to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality due to malnutrition and infant mortality due to low birth weight. He has also recently developed a cost-effective water purification method that is applicable globally. Through his educational and healthcare nonprofit organization, the Wimalawansa Foundation, Dr. Wimalawansa is providing potable water to remote villages, educating kids who are in need, overseeing the construction of a unique environmental center, and raising awareness about the surge of non-communicable diseases, including chronic kidney disease of unusual origin (CKDue) in the country’s North Central Province.
Says Jennifer Kirby (Class of 2005), one of Dr. Wimalawansa’s REMBA friends, “He expresses the dharma in his commitment to bettering the lives of people through access to health and information.”—Suzanne Bujara (2010)
How do you describe your current position? Last year I retired after 38 years in academia, as a professor of endocrinology and the chief of endocrinology, metabolism, and nutrition at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, now part of Rutgers University. Though I’m officially retired, I still teach nationally and internationally, serve on several boards of directors of health-related organizations and journal editorial boards, and continue my philanthropic work, which I’ve been doing for 35 years.
How did you get to where you are now? My father, who was the chief administrator for the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, would frequently travel to villages throughout the country, so I would see the misery of poverty firsthand. Even as a kid, I realized that I should do whatever I could to improve people’s lives. I was fortunate that my parents did not force me to go into medicine; it was my choice. My parents created for me the path of education and defined right from wrong.
What got you interested in setting up a charitable organization in Sri Lanka? A year after I graduated medical school, I worked at one of the remotest hospitals in Sri Lanka. This 80-bed facility, a District Hospital, had no electricity, running water, or any nursing staff. It was during these 11 months that I tested my ingenuity because patients refused to be transferred to a better equipped hospital 3 hours away. Among others, I treated grossly infected wounds with papaya as the hospital had no antibiotics. I was relieved to see that this natural remedy quickly sloughed off the dead tissue (as good as a surgical treatment) and I was able to send patients home within days.
During my stay, through the help of family, friends, and villagers, we were able to wire the hospital with electricity as well as plumbing to provide clean running water to the entire hospital. When I would periodically return to this remote facility, I was overwhelmed by the gratitude of former patients. They treated me like a god.
How did you garner support for your efforts? When I first started my charitable organization, I had my fellow Sri Lankans and family members assisting me. Now, I have others helping, including doctoral students from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia doing field work in medicine, engineering, construction, and other assistance. They have been instrumental in helping me to develop the model Nature Center to educate children and adults about the importance of maintaining a healthy environment and sustainability.
Are you seeking volunteers for your organization? Yes! I’m especially interested in getting assistance in various areas of expertise, including fundraising and corporate social responsibility. If anyone is interested working with our philanthropic organizations, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to work with you.
Of all the awards and honors, what are you most proud of? That I’ve always told the truth, regardless of how painful it may have been. I have no fear. I’m not intimidated by opposition or politically powerful people. I’m glad I stood up for injustices, especially environmental issues in Sri Lanka on the matter of clean drinking water, which I believe would reduce the escalating incidence of chronic kidney disease and premature deaths.
What gets you up in the morning? The opportunity to help people excites me and gets me moving. Though I’m retired, I still get calls from patients and physician colleagues in far-flung parts of the globe—Australia, Sri Lanka, and South Africa—who call me for consultations. Patients find me on the Internet, and I’m happy to help them, even if they call me at 2 am!