Cork doctor: I didn't see my wife or kids for six months due to Covid-19

A Cork neurosurgeon tells COLETTE SHERIDAN how he spent the pandemic saving lives in London, while being forced to spend six months apart from his young family
Cork doctor: I didn't see my wife or kids for six months due to Covid-19

Cork neurosurgeon Dr Philip J. O’Halloran on the helipad on the 17th floor of the Royal London Hospital.

A CORK doctor who has spent the pandemic saving lives as a neurosurgeon in London has revealed how he didn’t see his wife and children for six months because of Covid

Dr Philip O’Halloran, who grew up in Inniscarra, attended Presentation Brothers College, UCC and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).

He now works at the Royal Hospital London and says the experience of missing his family, including two children under the age of four, was one of the hardest things he has ever done.

The family all went to Toronto when Philip was stationed in a hospital in Canada. 

“But when Covid landed, we made the difficult decision that my wife and the children would go back to Ireland rather than come to London where I was starting a new job,” says Philip, speaking from the UK capital.

“We felt the children would be safer than if I was exposing them to the virus. So I didn’t see them for six months. I came home for a few weeks.

“When I moved to London, the idea was that I would commute over and back, but with the second wave, that idea was scuppered.

“It has been very hard, particularly on my wife who has a full time job (as a dietician at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin) and is looking after the kids. It’s important for me at this stage to start giving something back to my family. I finish up here at the end of July.”

Philip would love a post in Ireland but will stay on in the UK if necessary. He is currently the UK’s first Royal College of Surgeons in England approved neurotrauma fellow at the Royal London Hospital, one of the city’s major trauma centres and one of the largest trauma in Europe.

“Neurosurgery is sometimes quite humbling when you stop and think of the patients you’re helping at one of the most difficult times in their lives,” he says.

“We’re not only treating the patient. We’re also looking after their family in terms of decisions that have to be made and what treatment we offer. With neurosurgery, the stakes are so high, particularly in patients with a brain tumour or brain injuries. “

As Philip says, “pandemic or no pandemic, brain trauma and brain tumours still happen.”

While it has been all hands on deck at the Royal London Hospital, he hasn’t had to step outside his branch of medicine.

“People are still coming in with new head injuries so I keep busy with that. Internationally, there has been a 20% reduction in the amount of head injuries coming into hospitals. But we found that the number of patients (with brain trauma) hasn’t actually changed from pre-Covid times.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of head injuries that were intentional, sadly. They would be suicide attempts and assaults, reflecting the environment that people are finding themselves in at the moment. It’s very difficult for a lot of people.”

Philip says that the Covid-19 wave in January “was a little surreal to be honest. At one point in London, the figures were one in 30 people with the virus. 

"At one stage in this hospital, we had 150 ventilated patients with Covid. Over 300 non-ventilated patients were also here. It didn’t matter what staff grade you were, everyone got stuck in.”

Having been tested for Covid several times, Philip has never tested positive and is now fully vaccinated. Asked if hospitals were prepared for a major pandemic, he says: “I don’t think anyone can prepare for this. Having said that, when you see the effort that people are making, both here and in Toronto, it’s very impressive. Despite the pressures, the Royal London Hospital still has to maintain its ability to provide world class care for severally injured patients.”

The hospital uses the term ‘code black’, which refers to specialising in head trauma. Once code black is triggered, a senior neurosurgeon is waiting for the patient to come into the hospital, as well as other specialists such as emergency department doctors and trauma surgeons. Altogether, a team of 20 is on hand, involved in the initial resuscitation.

“If you include the paramedics all the way through to professionals such as physiotherapists and dieticians, you’re looking at a team of at least 30 people.”

A recent good news story concerned a baby boy who suffered a severe brain injury. He received life-saving surgery at the Royal London Hospital during the height of the pandemic. Efan Potts, who was eight months old at the time, suffered the injury while playing at home. He was rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

Philip remembers receiving a call that a paediatric ‘code black’ patient was on the way to the emergency department.

“When Efan arrived, it became immediately obvious that he was in very serious trouble. He was unconscious, his breathing pattern had changed and his right pupil had become dilated and wasn’t reacting to light. Essentially, Efan was on borrowed time.”

Philip and the team successfully removed the clot that was pressing on Efan’s brain within 40 minutes of him coming through the doors of the hospital. 

“In a case like that, time is of the essence.”

When Efan turned one in May, his mother brought him into the Royal London Hospital to be reunited with the team that saved his life.

“It was great to see Efan. He’s a perfectly happy one year old boy who will live a normal life. It was a great case for the hospital. The visit of Efan really lifted the people involved in what was otherwise a pretty grim time to be a health care worker.”

Philip, whose mother has worked as a nurse, considers himself lucky in that, early on, he knew he wanted to be a doctor.

“I didn’t get the points in my Leaving Cert for medicine so I did a science degree at UCC. I studied medicine at the RCSI. I did all my training in Dublin.”

When he was in his third year, he went to Beaumont Hospital. 

“I watched Henry Osborne, a legend in Irish surgery, take out someone’s thyroid gland. Then I went next door to Chris Pidgeon who was taking out a brain tumour. I stood there for eight hours, looking at the screen with a microscope. At the end of that, I thought — ‘yeah, I’ll have some of that.’”

Having worked in Ireland and Germany, Philip went to Toronto. 

“A lot of Irish doctors go abroad once they finish their training, to specialise in particular areas,” he explains.

“I wanted to specialise in brain tumour surgery. My second interest is in brain trauma. That’s what brought me to London.”

Philip founded the Brain Tumour Biobank, enhancing the molecular understanding of a variety of brain tumours.

He is a principal investigator in many brain tumour and traumatic brain injury projects and is an honorary lecturer at the RCSI. He has clearly found a demanding but very fulfilling career.

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