Dr. Dilangani (Dana) Ratnayake, 35, has been a Cathedral City resident since 2016.
“It’s emotionally draining to deal with patients who are in pain,” she says. However, she’s decided that emotional drain is worth it.
I first met Ratnayake because I have chronic pain. About three years ago, I had a headache that lasted for three months nonstop. After what seemed like every test known to man, I learned I had stenosis in a couple of the vertebrae in my neck. I consulted with a local pain clinic and was given steroid shots that almost instantly stopped the headaches and eased the discomfort in my right shoulder. I’ve never used opioids, but I have been getting routine pressure points shots in my shoulder and neck ever since—and she was assigned to be my doctor.
Ratnayake came to the United States from her native Sri Lanka at the age of 16. She has two older sisters, one of whom was then in graduate school in Minnesota.
“My parents got green cards,” she recalls, “because my aunt had actually sponsored my dad 10 years earlier.”
Ratnayake’s mother was the director of a Sri Lanka government agency-tourist board, who taught her daughter to “do what you want to do in your life.”
“My dad was with the Sri Lankan police,” Ratnayake says. “He’s very easy-going, and I think I’m more like my mom. I think I put undue pressure on myself.”
While Ratnayake’s parents currently reside in Sri Lanka, the family formerly lived in Minnesota, where Ratnayake completed high school and then earned her undergrad degree in biology at the College of Saint Catherine. She went on to get her doctorate from the University of Minnesota, and had her anesthesiology residency at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A fellowship then took her back to Minnesota.
Why anesthesiology? “I liked the procedural aspects,” she says, “and I like being in the (operating room). With interventional pain management, you actually get to build a relationship with the patient.”
Ratnayake returned to Minnesota with not only a degree, but also a husband. “We’ve been together 10 years. A family friend had known him for a long time,” she says. “We actually started dating while I was still in Minnesota, and got married during my last year of medical school.”
Her husband is a primary-care physician, currently practicing in Redlands.
“During residency, (doctors) rotate in different sub-specialties,” says Ratnayake. “Pain management was one aspect. After my fellowship, I came to the desert with Kaiser, focusing 100 percent on pain management—but that wasn’t for me” at the time.
She went back to anesthesia full-time. “But doing anesthesia, interactions with patients are short and intense. There are no long-term relationships.
“I didn’t realize then how much pain management focused on the use of opioids. It wasn’t like that in training. Real pain management is using all of the skills learned—talking to patients, the use of meds, interventional therapies, and other methods of pain control. Opioids do have a role, and that’s the challenge, but it’s diminishing now. It’s not the first best option, nor the only one.”
Of course, Ratnayake has a bucket list. “I like to travel. I was in Europe last year, and I go to Sri Lanka at least once a year to see my parents. Up to now, my time has been limited. … I practice yoga, and I love dogs, but don’t currently have one, so I volunteer at the shelter.”
Ratnayake’s ability to relate on a personal level is not often found in a doctor, at least in my experience. She listens, is empathetic, and always exhibits a warm, caring demeanor. In 10 years, she says she sees herself with a successful practice, working full-time to help those who struggle with pain.
“Maybe, at that point, we’ll have kids,” she says with a laugh.
As for that successful practice she sees herself having, Ratnayake is on the cusp of getting it started. “I’m looking for more autonomy in a practice, and the ability to screen the patients. If you’re looking for opioids to deal with pain, I may not be your doctor of choice,” she says. She wants to focus on women with pain, as doctors are often not attuned to the different kinds of pain that women experience—for example, during menopause.
I initially spoke to her several weeks ago, before the reality of the pandemic set in. Ratnayake said then that she’d found a location and was seeking credentialing to work with health-insurance providers. “I’m hoping for April or May, to start with being open a couple of days a week and weekends,” she told me. “I’ll keep doing anesthesia work with hospitals until ultimately opening five days a week.
But the coronavirus has changed Ratnayake’s path, at least for now. I checked in with her a couple of days ago.
“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on delaying the start of my pain practice. Credentialing and new contracts with physicians are now delayed,” she says. “I was hoping to open for a few days in April, but it will be at least (the middle) to end of May before we finalize contracts and also implement a process where social distancing can be practiced and patients can be seen safely.
“Since elective surgeries have been postponed, I’m not doing anesthesia work—and I must admit it’s an unusual feeling to have time on my hands.”
It may be emotionally draining to deal with patients who are in pain, but Dana Ratnayake is making a place for herself in our local medical community—and is on a mission to relieve pain.
“A lot of people are in chronic pain, and if they’ve been on opioids, you can’t just cut them off. It’s life-changing to get off them,” she says.
We’re lucky to have her.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.