A native of the townland of Skeheen, near Mitchelstown, Tom was born into a farming family. The Ahernes and the Fitzgeralds — his mother’s family — were ‘of the land’, people who knew what sheer hard work and drudgery were. They placed great store on education for the betterment of the next generation.
Tom attended Christian Brothers Mitchelstown and realised from an early age that medicine was his calling. This dream was realised when he graduated from the Medical school in UCC in 1974.
He commenced his Postgraduate surgical training in St Finbarr’s Hospital and obtained his Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (F.R.C.S.I.) in 1978.
He decided to pursue a career in cardiothoracic surgery — 40 years ago open heart surgery was a new and challenging speciality that enabled surgeons to diagnose and correct major heart conditions which were previously untreatable.
The availability of a newly-invented mechanical process which could literally stop the human heart during surgery and then restart it made open heart surgery a reality.
A seven-year training term was required and Tom began this at the world famous Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. In 1980, he returned to Dublin and became the first trainee appointed to the Irish National Training Programme in Cardiothoracic Surgery.
Three years later, Tom was awarded the prestigious Ainsworth Scholarship by UCC. This was founded by Miss Edith K. Eyre of Newport, Rhode Island, USA, in memory of her grandfather, Dr James Ainsworth, who secured his medical qualifications in Dublin and subsequently practised in Peru.
The donor requested that the university establish a scholarship “to be known as the Ainsworth Scholarship, and to select from time to time, in the manner hereinafter provided, medical doctors who intend to practise their profession in Ireland, primarily those who are medical graduates of University College Cork, and to apply the amounts received by the University pursuant to this Indenture to the postgraduate medical education and training, in the United States of America or in any other country, of such doctor in such manner as the University shall determine.
“The selection of the recipients of the scholarship shall be made by the Head of the School of Medicine, University College Cork.
“The donor desires that the recipients of such scholarships be allowed to pursue their postgraduate education and training in any country which may offer the best facilities for such education and training”.
Tom took up a Fellowship position in the Department of Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. An illustrious college with a proud history, one of the most famous figures to have worked there was Irish/American John Englebert Dunphy, who served the college as Chairman in 1964 and stayed until his retirement in 1975. Dunphy had earlier served in the U.S Army during World War I as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Much of the research carried out by Tom in San Francisco was published in the medical journals of the time.
What we now know as Cork University Hospital, or CUH, was opened in 1978, simply called ‘the Regional’ back then. The ultra modern hospital decided to add cardiac surgery to its ever increasing suite of surgical specialities.
In 1985, the Ford Motor Company, which had closed its long established manufacturing plant in the Marina, donated £250,000 to the Regional Hospital. With the help of this funding, specialist equipment was purchased and experienced staff were recruited.
Other staff members were sent for training to the Mater Hospital in Dublin — then Ireland’s only cardiac centre. Tom Aherne returned Leeside and carried out the first cardiac surgery in the Regional in November, 1985.
The 1980’ were a decade of straitened financial times in Ireland so fund-raising for further developments became vital and Tom was very much to the fore in this regard. Extensive local lobbying eventually yielded results and in 1992 a second cardiac theatre was opened following the expansion of the Critical Care Unit. Four years later, Mr Aonghus O Donnell was appointed as the second cardiac surgeon in Cork.
Two decades of political pressure finally led to the construction of a €80 million purpose-built Cardiac Centre which was opened by Taoiseach Brian Cowen in 2010. Unfortunately, in that same year, Aonghus O Donnell died unexpectedly, a terrible blow to his own family and to cardiac surgery in Munster.
More than 10,000 surgical procedures have been carried out by the skilled hands of Tom Aherne and his team during his time in CUH. For a decade he was the Irish representative on the Examination Board of the Royal College of Surgeons of Great Britain in Ireland. He was also an Examiner for the Intercollegiate Fellowship in Cardiothoracic Surgery.
Speaking to Tom this week, it is obvious that he has taken great pride in his work and that of his colleagues. The rate of sudden death in Ireland from heart attack has been reduced by over 60%, which is huge progress.
He is very cognisant of the obvious health threats now presenting from the twin scourges of diabetes and obesity. Tom has seen huge advances in cardiac treatment and surgery in the last four decades. He believes less invasive surgery is the way forward.
He mentioned too the far-seeing Dr Noël Browne when, as Minister for Health, he persuaded Dr Maurice Hickey to return to Ireland and help fight the plague of TB.
Dr Hickey was an innovative lung and heart specialist in Cork. He laid the first steps on the path that Tom Aherne and others have followed and expanded.
Cardiaothoracic research and surgery have seen major changes in the southern capital. Cork is now the busiest centre in the country for cardiac surgery. Its success is testament and tribute to the dedication and commitment of all the staff presently working in Cork and in years gone by.
As Tom Aherne bids adieu to the theatre, the future of Cardiothoracic surgery in Cork University Hospital is bright. Exciting and futuristic developments are in the pipeline with a steely determination from all involved to offer a timely and effective service to all those who require cardiothoracic surgery.
According to long-standing colleagues of Tom Aherne, he was a man who, when it came to patient care, would never, ever accept the word ‘No’.
He possesses a calmness needed in such a highly-pressurised occupation and his easy-going nature, talent and innate goodness made him a surgeon par excellence.
He tells me his garden will take up plenty of his time and his interest in social history and travel will now get more attention. Lil and the family will see more of a very busy man.
Tom Aherne, son of Skeheen, has come a long way but always kept his feet on the ground.
Et pares illos nobis fecisti bene, frui secedas.