Cancer Doctor Retires After 30 Years of Practice in the Northwest

Dr. Sunil Gulavita, Radiation Oncologist, MD, FRCR, FRCP, retired on June 30th, 2016, after a long and distinguished career with Regional Cancer Care Northwest at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC). The legacy he leaves behind includes advanced cancer patient care delivery in Northwestern Ontario through his influence on our world-class treatment centre, radiation therapy treatment protocols, research, mentorship and education, and the countless patients and families that he has helped over the past 30 years.

On June 30th, Dr. Sunil Gulavita, Radiation Oncologist, retired after a long and distinguished career with Regional Cancer Care Northwest at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Gulavita, MD, FRCR, FRCP, was a foundational member of the Regional Cancer Program, helping to establish the Regional Cancer Centre’s world class radiation therapy treatment centre and protocol.

Dr. Gulavita was born in Sri Lanka and completed his primary education and medical degree there. “My decision to pursue medicine was influenced by my fascination with the medical profession. I visited a doctor’s office back home and was interested in the layout of the practice and the professionalism. My mother also influenced my decision – she wanted to have a doctor in the family,” explains Dr. Gulavita. “When it came time to choose a specialty, my decision was made for me. In Sri Lanka, my education was free so the government chose where I would practice and I was sent to the only cancer centre in Sri Lanka (at the time) in the country’s capital city, Colombo. I was then sent to the United Kingdom (UK) to continue specializing in oncology.”

Dr. Gulavita found a passion for the growing field of oncology and the hard work and dedication it required. He had his residency training in the UK for 8 years, where he received his certification in radiation oncology.  By then he and his wife were blessed with the birth of their son.

After completing his training in the UK, moving back to Sri Lanka wasn’t an option due to ethnic conflict that had arisen. He then had a choice to make between moving to Canada or Australia – two opposite ends of the world. In 1985, he was successfully recruited by the Ministry of Health’s underserviced areas initiatives, and moved to Thunder Bay for a one- year contract, which was extended to three years, and then became a notable 30 years.

“When I arrived in Thunder Bay on December 11th, 1985, I had no idea how cold it was going to be – it was minus 31 degrees and we had rain jackets on because that’s what you wear in the UK,” says Dr. Gulavita. “While in Canada, I trained and worked at cancer centres in Ottawa, Hamilton and at Princess Margaret Hospital [Toronto], and obtained my Canadian certification. However, Thunder Bay became our home and our daughter was born shortly after we moved here. Both of our children completed their primary education in Thunder Bay and now they are both physicians practicing in Southern Ontario.”

Dr. Gulavita has been an instrumental part of advancing cancer care in Northwestern Ontario, and has also been a driving force in the advancement of prostate cancer care nationally and internationally. He was a leader in developing the Radiation Therapy Department with the Regional Cancer Program and left his mark with the team he worked with as the Head and Coordinator of the Radiation Therapy Network for the Northwest Region for the past 20 years. As the lead, he influenced choices about radiation therapy equipment, the design of the radiation therapy facility at our Health Sciences Centre (which includes unique sky lights in the treatment bunkers), as well as how patient- and family-centred care is delivered.

In addition to his influence in our region, Dr. Gulavita has been invested in the steady progression of practice and research, specifically related to prostate cancer. He has published more than 30 research papers, has presented at more than 50 workshops and conferences, is an Associate Clinical Professor with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and has shared his invaluable experience and knowledge mentoring countless professionals and students.

When asked about his biggest accomplishment in his career, Dr. Gulavita said, “Developing a Radiation Therapy Department with the capabilities and treatment opportunities that are as good as any other facility in Canada is what I’m proud of. I feel grateful that the excellent team here will carry on with the goals we built for our centre.”

The success and impact of Dr. Gulavita’s career cannot be summarized in one article, but the legacy he leaves behind speaks for itself. When he began his work here, the cancer centre was located near the previous Port Arthur General Hospital, and was separated from the hospital.  He also traveled to hospitals throughout Northwestern Ontario to meet with patients and staff, and helped develop treatment protocols and select new equipment during the early stages until recently. Today, we have a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, a thriving program that offers world-class care, including telemedicine, and ongoing research to help treat and cure cancer. At the conclusion of a long career dedicated to helping to advance medical care, cancer patients in Northwestern Ontario benefitted from Dr. Gulavita’s leadership, work ethic and passion for enhanced care every day, and will continue to benefit long after his last day at our Health Sciences Centre.

We wish to extend our sincerest gratitude to Dr. Gulavita for 30 years of exceptional cancer care, and wish him all the best in the next chapter of his life.