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A Place to Remember Stari Gunarathne: Aspiring doctor from Portlethen who died aged 26

"Ten years hasn't eased our pain," said Stari's father on the anniversary of his daughter's death.

A Place to Remember 26-year-old Stari Gunarathne from Portlethen.
A Place to Remember 26-year-old Stari Gunarathne from Portlethen.

Looking out across the water as waves crash into Aberdeen’s seafront groynes, a memorial bench honours the memory of inspirational Portlethen 26-year-old, Stari Gunarathne.

On the 10th anniversary of her death and as part of our A Place to Remember series, her family pay tribute to the aspiring doctor who had terminal leukaemia as a result of a rare complication from a previous cancer treatment.

Settling in the north-east

Stari Kanchana Gunarathne was born in Leicester on April 9 1987.

The second child of Dr Gunti and Kanthi Gunarathne, she moved to Aberdeen as an eight-month-old when her dad started lecturing at Robert Gordon University’s school of engineering.

Originally from Sri Lanka, the family quickly settled in the village seven miles south of Aberdeen.

Growing up Stari and her older brother Tharaka were always very close. She attended Portlethen Primary and though her secondary education began at the local academy she later moved to Robert Gordon’s College.

Off to St Andrews

Studying, learning karate – which she would go on to teach – and becoming a champion on trampoline, Stari completed her Advanced Highers in 2005. She earned herself a place at St Andrews University to study biology and psychology, and though she had battled depression as a teenager, she was hopeful for her future.

After two years in Fife, undertaking every voluntary activity she could, Stari transferred to Leeds University to realise her ambition of becoming a doctor.

Stari Gunarathne, who studied at St Andrews then Leeds universities.

Leaving her friends and family she found herself “in a fog of depression” soon after the move, and was unable to progress to year two of her medical degree.

When eventually she did feel healthier she looked forward to returning to her studies. In her blog she reflected that the “year out” was coming to an end and a return to medical school would be imminent.

Faith kept her going

She wrote: “I finally made it into year two.  I was two weeks into starting the course again when I found a lump on my neck.”

Looking back she described it as the start of a “chain reaction” of tests. Eventually diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma on December 23 2009, chemotherapy took place every fortnight for six months.

Stari would often accompany her lecturer father on trips around the world.

Gunti said: “It was an unforgettable getting that call, finding out that our daughter had cancer.

“There were a few tough times. She had a negative reaction to the chemo and was very unwell at one point, but she got through it. She had a very strong Christian faith and was part of a very supportive church in Leeds.

“We believed she was cured.”

Inspiring blog

In September 2010 Stari was able to return to university completing years two and three back-to-back with no medical interruptions.

Her fourth year commenced as planned in 2012, but extreme tiredness made it hard to concentrate. Heart palpitations followed and by January 2013 she was given the devastating news that she had cancer once again. This time it was a form of leukaemia likely caused by the treatment for her Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Through smiles and sometimes tears, Stari braved her cancer treatments, updating her blog regularly.

“She didn’t want to worry us, especially since we had all been here before,” said Gunti. “A plan was devised. She would stay in hospital to be treated; her regime would include bone marrow transplants.

“After 11 months it was complete and we thought she was recovering.”

Throughout her cancer journey Stari blogged her thoughts and updates, adding insights about her faith and Christian belief.

Tragic news

Sadly, a sore throat triggered a new batch of tests and though the acute myeloid leukaemia had been suppressed she was told in September 2013 that her condition was terminal.

Unable to complete her final medical degree the university made a special allowance. They presented Stari with her Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree in human life sciences, in hospital.

Awarded for her perseverance at university despite illness, Stari Gunarathne.

“It was the first time they had ever done such a thing,” said Gunti. “It was very special indeed.”

Supported by her friends from South Parade Baptist Church in Leeds – now known as Cornerstone – Stari was able to attend church one final time where she addressed the congregation offering a message of hope and trust in her “anchor, Jesus Christ.”

Loss is still painful

Peppered between her inspiring posts there were also glimmers of how difficult Stari  found her terminal diagnosis to be.

In her penultimate blog post just days before she died she expressed sadness that each visit with friends could be the last. Yet until her dying moments she put others before herself.

“Stari planned her own funeral, and despite her pain intensifying she didn’t want us to keep a constant vigil. She was worried about us. There were even videos that she made instructing us what to do when her time came.

Former Robert Gordon’s College pupil Stari Gunarathne.

“In the end we had been with her, but it was only when we left her room to rest a while that she passed away.

“It’s still very hard for us. Ten years isn’t long enough to take away the pain of losing our wonderful daughter.”

Her older brother Tharaka added: “She was a laugh out loud person, smiley with a bouncy personality and a great friend to many.”

‘She’s not gone… she’s just abroad’

On December 18, 2013, Stari died in St James’ University Hospital, Leeds. She was just 26 years old.

Like their daughter, Kanthi and Gunti share their daughter’s Christian faith.

Kanthi said: “For me, it’s like she’s living abroad. When I think of her in Heaven I have peace that she is well and happy and I will see her again. She’s not gone, she’s just not here with me.”

Poignant words from the Gunarathne family for daughter Stari, 26<br />Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson

A celebration of Stari’s life took place at her church in England on January 8 2014, where hundreds of people gathered to pay their last respects wearing rosettes she started making before her death.

‘I want to be by the sea’

“She left the choice of burial or cremation to us. The one thing she asked was that if we did bury her, to do it near the sea. She loved being at the beach,” said Gunti.

While they did explore that option there were no spaces near the coast. Stari was brought back to the family home in Portlethen for one night before a second service was organised at Hazlehead Crematorium.

Stari’s bench overlooking the sea.  Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson.

Her ashes were scattered where the Don meets the sea but the family wanted a lasting memorial.

A bench on Aberdeen Esplanade was the perfect option.

Shine bright, Stari

Drawing from the Sri Lankan meaning of her name, ‘shiny star’ the plaque reads: “Dear daughter, may you shine like a star in the universe. God bless you and see you in Heaven. Mummy and Daddy.”

Gunti and Kanthi Gunarathne, parents of Stari, at her memorial bench last winter.

Now, a decade on, the couple still regularly visit Stari’s bench, drawing comfort from a place that gave their daughter so much joy.

Gunthi also started a research company called Starimedical inventing and creating new medical technology in his daughter’s name.

“On birthdays and anniversaries we like to visit the bench. We feel close to our daughter there. It’s a lovely place to remember her.”