Through a Rose Glass but darkly

It’s too easy to retain an innocent and rose coloured view of the Ireland of yesterday, when times were good, men were men and the women stayed at home.

Having spent most of my childhood there, I have some experience of many of the issues that we so studiously avoided at the time. I will look at the Ferns Report at some time in the future, but its important to realise that other vulnerable people were exploited, of whom we’ve heard nothing, and whose voices will be forever silent. There is still a story to be written of the treatment of older people in care facilities in Ireland in the middle of the last century. When I was a ‘ward maid’ in Dublin in a particular facility, I witnessed cruelty and inhumanity on a daily basis against old and vulnerable people that haunts me to this day.

But the one that is still rattling on, and continues to reflect the ability of those in power to exploit is the scandal of Michael Neary at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, in Drogheda.

As a student midwife, I recall so vividly a day that this man was going to do the ward rounds. Well in advance, we were sent around to all the women, whose beds formed a U-shape down the walls and across the bottom. There were probably about 30 or so in the ward, and we had to pull their nightdresses above their ‘bumps’ to their chest, and the sheet down to just below. I remember standing in the doorway and surveying the pink bumps, all sizes and shapes, like so many melons in a row in a field.

Neary entered the ward, with his coterie of medical and nursing students and a great silence fell upon us. He made his way from bed to bed, never speaking except to the Sister, feeling, probing and grunting. About half way down, he came to the bed of a young mother, who broke the stillness and asked ‘Doctor, is my baby alright’.

He stopped and stared at her, spoke in the ear of the Sister and walked to the next bed. Sister turned to the patient and hissed, “You are only a patient, you never, never address Mr Neary to his face”. I left Drogheda after 2 months, deciding midwifery was not my bag.

It wasnt until 1998 that 2 student nurses took the very brave decision to challenge Neary’s behaviour and ask to have his record of caesarian hysterectomies reviewed, due to what they felt was an abnormally high rate of such procedures. http://http://www.irishhealth.com/index.html?level=4&id=5111

Neary was suspended by the Irish Medical Council in 1999, and was struck off in 2003. A Public Enquiry was established by the Minsiter of Health in 2004, and the Report was published in February of this year. An apology was issued by the Government in March to the women who were affected, with Bertie Ahern telling them that he was appalled. The Harding Clark Report into the scandal also identified that 44 of the 129 relevant patient charts had gone missing, and the entire issue is being referred to the Gardai.

There are many complex layers of issues in the Neary story. Lack of accountability and training were certainly 2 of the areas identified in the report. The idea of other colleagues not finding it strange for such a shocking level of this procedure being carried out is also one that calls into question the idea of medical solidarity at all cost. The impact of blowing the whistle on such a tale is also going to have to be considered seriously by the powers in Dublin.

But more than anything, it highlights the utter disregard of a Male surgeon for his vulnerable female patients.The arrogance and lack of concern for these women, their lives and their futures make this a disgraceful episode in Irish history.