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Junior doctor, 26, who treated patients on Covid ward drowned while taking dip in the sea

A 'talented and dedicated' junior doctor who fought to save lives on the Covid frontline drowned while taking a dip in the sea after a night out drinking with her friends, an inquest has heard.

The body of Thirushika Sathialingam, 26, who worked on a Covid respiratory ward at the height of the second wave, was found in Margate Harbour, Kent, by coastguards at 5.45am on September 11 this year. 

Her friends had raised the alarm when she failed to return home with them. 

A major search operation was launched, involving lifeboat crews, police, firefighters and a coastguard rescue helicopter.

The health worker, known to friends as Thiru, was last seen alive in the water at Margate Harbour, an inquest at County Hall in Maidstone, Kent, was told on Tuesday. 

Assistant coroner Joanne Andrews said the cause of her death was submersion in water, with alcohol intoxication being a contributory factor.

The body of Thirushika Sathialingam, 26, (pictured) who worked on a Covid respiratory ward at the height of the second wave, was found in Margate Harbour, Kent, by coastguards at 5.45am on September 11 this year

Thiru's boyfriend Peter Speilbichler (pictured together), said he 'loved everything about her' and that she was 'always kind and smiling' 

Before her death, Ms Sathialingam had worked as a junior doctor on a respiratory ward at The Queen Mother Hospital (QEQM) during the UK's second coronavirus wave.

She had started at the hospital before the pandemic, hoping to follow in her father's footsteps by becoming a consultant anaesthetist.

At the time, her father, who retired from the hospital in July, said: 'Every parent thinks their child is special but she truly was, and it is only now that I am realising how much good advice she gave me and how wise she was.

'She always had time to listen to people, and enjoyed looking after her patients.

'During the second wave of Covid she was on a respiratory ward with people who had the virus and she would sit and talk to them, holding their hands to give them comfort.

'She was not afraid to double-check things with consultants if she felt something was not right and she was passionate about her work.' 

Ms Sathialingam spent much of her childhood in Ilford, before moving to Kent with her family in 2011.

There she attended Sir Roger Manwood's School before studying medicine at Riga Stradins University in Latvia, where she met her boyfriend Peter Speilbichler.

After graduating, the couple spent some time travelling before the coronavirus pandemic hit and she moved back to Kent to start working at the QEQM, where her brother Kaushaliyan is also a junior doctor.

He said: 'I don't think many siblings were as close as we were. We did almost everything together.

'She was a fantastic doctor. I don't think she realised how good she was, but it came naturally to her. 

'She was able to think outside the box to get things done for her patients, and she loved that medicine was such a complex subject.

Thiru was last seen alive in the water at Margate Harbour (pictured), an inquest at County Hall in Maidstone, Kent, was told on Tuesday

'She was interested in anaesthetics because she enjoyed the scientific approach to it. 

'She wanted to be able to do procedures that would make a real difference to people.'

Ms Sathialingam was also a talented dancer, performing classical Indian routines at charity events and teaching others.

She enjoyed travelling, and would meticulously plan trips to Sri Lanka where she was born or to visit her boyfriend's family in Germany, as well as exploring the UK.

Her boyfriend Mr Speilbichler said: 'I have had calls from my friends' parents who only met her once or twice, saying how amazing she was and how she lit up the room and made everyone welcome.

'If there was someone who was not part of a group, she would make sure she spoke to them and that they were included and felt comfortable.

'She could get on with everyone and she was always kind and smiling. I never heard anything malicious come out of her mouth, even if she was angry.

'The time we spent together was amazing and I loved everything about her.'

Thiru's brother Kaushaliyan, also a junior doctor, said: 'She was a fantastic doctor. I don't think she realised how good she was, but it came naturally to her.' (Pictured: Thiru with her boyfriend Peter)

East Kent Hospitals' chief executive Susan Acott described the talented doctor's death as a 'huge loss' to the Trust.

She said: 'Thiru was a real shining star who had quickly made her mark with her caring nature and her passion for her patients.

'It is clear she would have had a bright future ahead of her and I have no doubt she had the potential to achieve anything she set her heart on.

'Our thoughts are with her family and her many friends and colleagues.'

Dr Prathibha Bandipalyam, director of medical education, added: 'Thiru was an excellent doctor and a major source of support to her colleagues, particularly the new junior doctors who joined us in August.

'Her talent was obvious and she was dedicated to her work and to the people she cared for.'

The inquest was adjourned until February 2 when a full hearing will take place