|Dr. Dinali Fernando|
Dr. Dinali Fernando will never forget how her family left everything behind and fled from their hometown due to political upheaval in her native Sri Lanka. “I guess we were lucky,” she said. “We were spared from physical harm.”
Even after struggling to finance her medical education in the U.S. and landing a dream job as an Emergency Room physician at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, Dr. Fernando never imagined she’d one day be helping other immigrants who faced much worse fates than her family’s.
As the new Medical Director of the Libertas Center for Human Rights at Elmhurst Hospital Center, Dr. Fernando is helping to heal the physical and emotional scars that are common among individuals who have suffered unimaginable abuse and have been forced to leave loved ones behind in their home country.
“As a mecca of immigrant New York communities, Elmhurst Hospital is a natural healthcare partner with the mission of the Libertas Center. In order to provide the best medical care to survivors of torture, we need to build trust, overcome language barriers and show our compassion as healthcare providers,” Dr. Fernando said. “This is the kind of place where I always wanted to practice medicine.”
For four years, Dr. Fernando volunteered many hours of service to the Libertas organization, even after grueling overnight shifts in the ED. Last year, she successfully helped to secure a federal grant for more than $700,000 to support this specialty center at Elmhurst Hospital, which provides comprehensive medical, psychological, social services and legal services to survivors of torture.
“We have served more than 60 individuals who come from all over the world, and most commonly from Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East,” Dr. Fernando said. “These individuals have experienced many different forms of torture, from beatings and burns to sexual torture and mutilation. But they all share the same sense of isolation and pain.”
Dr. Fernando says she cannot do this work alone. She conducts training for other physicians at the hospital to help them better identify and care for victims of torture as they seek services in the emergency room or any other clinic throughout the hospital.
“Just last month, a patient from Asia, who has no family and cannot read or write, came into the ED to get treatment for chest pain. An emergency medicine intern who had participated in our training was able to assess that the chest pain was clearly not the only cause of his suffering, and referred him to our program,” Dr. Fernando said.
“We not only got health care for the patient, but we also helped him with the legal services he needed to win asylum. I was overwhelmed with emotion when I heard the relief and happiness in the voice of this otherwise very quiet man when he told me he won his well-deserved case. It was a truly joyous moment which highlighted the impact we can make on our patient’s lives,” she added.
Dr. Fernando, 36, received her M.D. and her Masters of Public Health from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She did her residency in Emergency Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and has worked as an Emergency Department physician at Elmhurst Hospital since 2007. She is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and was the recipient of their Dr. Saidapet Balakrishnan Humanitarian Award. She and her husband live in Queens.