I retired days before Covid hit, says doc’

After a career at CUH, Dr Seamus O’Mahony tells CHRIS DUNNE about his decision to write a book
I retired days before Covid hit, says doc’

Dr. Seamus O'Mahony, author of The Ministry of Bodies.

DOCTORS differ and patients may die; and in The Ministry of Bodies Dr Seamus O’Mahony gives a detailed and entertaining account of both the working life of a doctor/consultant and of their dealings with their patients in hospital.

The book takes us on a year-long journey of life and death in a modern hospital.

Why did Seamus, who grew up on Magazine Road near Dennehy’s Cross, a consultant gastroenterologist, decide to retire at 60 after a 37 year medical career?

“I was tired,” admits Seamus, who kept notes reflecting on a year in the hospital environment when he knew he was coming to the end of a very long career. “I was looking back, both at the good things and the bad things.”

He made the decision to retire a few months into 2019.

“The demands of a consultant, being on call, seeing lists of patients, doing hospital ward rounds; all take their toll mentally and physically when you’re 60 as opposed to being 35,” he says. “In your 60s you could be relieved of on-call duties and maybe move into areas like tutoring, training, mentoring and managing.

“Valued knowledge and vast experience shouldn’t go to waste. Management show very little imagination.”

He became disillusioned with the health service and with bureaucracy.

“Meeting targets was more important than treating patients,” says Seamus. “It was soul-destroying.

“And I was disillusioned with the health system that had got increasingly worse since Mary Harney’s tenure as Health Minister. In the January before I retired, there were a record numbers of patients on trolleys. When Covid broke out, we had a work force alraady pushed very hard.”

Seamus had no illusions about becoming a doctor. “I had no outstanding aptitude or suitability apart from having a knack for doing well in exams,” he says.

“It was one of those pragmatic decisions about careers. There were few career choices then; medicine seemed like the best one.”

He had no ‘pull’ (rampant in the ’70s and ’80s), or connections to help him enter the medical profession.

“I was from a modest background with no connections,” says Seamus.

Yet the O’Mahonys had a propensity for medicine.

“My brother Denis is a doctor and my niece is currently at medicine school,” he says.

Seamus’ father was a little bemused by his son.

“He had left school at 14 and had been a hard grafter ever since,” says Seamus. “He couldn’t understand what a grown man was doing still at home! I was 23 when I graduated.”

Seamus embraced college life.

“I had a great time in college. I enjoyed the social side and I was very active in the debating society.”

Seamus began his career as a junior doctor in July, 1983, at Cork University Hospital, the ‘Wilton Hilton’ which opened in November, 1978, and which Seamus refers to as the Ministry.

Like lots of junior doctors in the ’80s, he moved to the UK, working for the NHS and he met his wife in Scotland.

“The NHS was very good to us,” says Seamus. “Irish doctors had a great reputation in the UK.”

He returned to Cork and to CUH as one of just two consultants in the gastroenterology department where he remained until last February.

“Four days after I left CUH, the World Health Organisation announced Covid 19 had broken out. I think working through a pandemic might have been extremely difficult.”

Seamus, having treated patients and worked with doctors for over four decades in hospitals in three countries, has the perfect prescription to keep the reader enthralled and entertained about life in hospital behind the scenes and behind the curtain.

While the professional doctors worked diligently to make patients better, some patients did die.

“Over decades, human error can occur and mistakes can occur,” says Seamus. “When you make a mistake; you never forget it. You take it to your grave.”

There were often difficult cases and difficult characters to deal with.

We meet Sharon, with a hatred of doctors and a dependence on alcohol, who declared to Seamus that he was ‘going to f**k me out the door without sorting me”.

On a routine hospital ward round, we meet a registrar who orders his willing consultant to stop mid-round for ‘a fag’!

Alan, who Seamus knows since he was a teen, now 35, is on a trolley and spent half his life in hospital.

“What’s causing the pain?” he pleads.

“He may as well have been asking me about quantum physics,” writes Seamus.

“The characters in The Ministry of Bodies are fictional, albeit typical patients and typical doctors of their time. We can identify with them, feel for them and empathise with them. After all, most of us have had some experience of hospital. Of course now, hospital surroundings are more salubrious, not like in bygone days when the ‘Ministry’ was in its infancy and ‘the floors were covered with linoleum and the ceilings covered with white styrofoam tiles.’

“In it’s ‘young’ days, the walls were green, brown and yellow,” writes Seamus, who uses a lovely flow of language and lively descriptive passages in his book.

“In later years, the decor became ‘off white’.”

Seamus paints a colourful, often painful, picture of the typical people he came across.

“Both the patients and the doctors I include in the book are amalgams of the people I dealt with over the years,” explains Seamus, who worked in the emergency ward, the general ward, intensive care units and endoscopy.

“There were two of us gastroenterology consultants for 14 years until we grew to four. The workload was pretty intense.”

As a trained ‘ologist’, Seamus combined elements of a priest, a social worker and counsellor as part of his work. Administration had to be done too.

“I could spend a lot of time reading emails and answering them if I chose to,” says Seamus.

He also highlights the effects of alcohol consumption, which he saw increase during his career.

“In the 1980s, liver cirrhosis was relatively uncommon,” says Seamus. “Many of my parents’ generation were generally teetotallers mainly for religious reasons, or at least alcohol consumption was modest.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, when alcohol consumption rose sharply, there was an epidemic of liver disease. Much of my consultant career was caring for victims of this epidemic.”

Seamus, already a prize-winning author, who hopes to travel to London to Kings College, where he has an appointment as visiting professor at the Centre of Humanities and Health, is going to work in the interim among the community as a vaccinator.

“Yes, that’s what I’ll be doing. And I’d like to get travelling again to medical conferences abroad,” says Seamus.

He likes cooking and walking his dog.

Does he cook for gut health?

“No,” says Seamus laughing.

“I cook what tastes good and I cook for pleasure!”

Does he have any ailments himself?

“I have arthritis in my hands, so I don’t garden.”

But he does write, and he does so with humour and honesty, about heart-warming incidents both happy and sad, even ridiculous! And because laughter is the best medicine, Seamus includes a good dose of that in the novel.

The Ministry of Bodies is a thumping good read which has mass appeal for the man on the street and for men and women everywhere who relish a real-life take on the ‘ministry’ where people come to be cured and to die.

Seamus gives us a guided tour of the halls and wards where most of us visit at some point in our lives.

“I hope people enjoy reading it,” says Seamus.

They will. Because he tells it like it is.

The Ministry of Bodies by Seamus O’Mahony, available now in Easons, Dubray and Amazon, priced €17.99.

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