Rude Health: Tales of Leo Varadkar and Les Dawson
Leo Varadkar says that he's listening, but Maurice Gueret wonders if he is getting straight advice like Les Dawson
There is a lot of positive feeling about Minister Varadkar's ascent in the giant elevator of Hawkins House. On his first day in the en suite office, he tweeted that he had met the staff, but said that before acting, he was going to spend a few weeks listening and reflecting.
The new Health Minister didn't specify who he was going to listen to. If I might proffer one piece of advice, I would suggest that he listens further afield than to the many administrative lifers in his department. He might also do well to listen to, but politely ignore, most of the unchanging salary-centric advice of the many trades and guilds within the health sector, much of which has led us to the sorry state of perpetual overspend and underdevelopment we see today. A major criticism of the Department of Finance in its darkest hours was that it didn't seek or even contemplate listening to contrarian advice from outsiders. Health is the ultimate closed shop and above all, needs new voices.
Dr Varadkar's Twitter account @campaignforleo might be worth following to see his progress, but the early days are not promising. A photo opportunity at the opening of a new MRI scanner in his constituency and the welcoming of a new playground in the same constituency don't exactly mark him out as anything different from his colleagues. When I served a term on a health authority and board a decade ago, there were full-time departments in each devoted to disseminating photographs, and shining lights on politicians in their endless quests for re-election. We badly need a minister who doesn't care for the selfies.
If you'd like to see a good example of what an outsider can achieve, get yourself a copy of the recent Rough Rider documentary shown on RTE. I hope they release the DVD for Christmas, as it will be high on my modest list for Santa. Ireland has celebrated many decent cyclists over the years, but the one who can stand higher on his pedals than all others is Paul Kimmage, who made it a life's work to expose the endemic nature of drug-taking in his sport.
The key moment in this wonderful documentary was when he was asked if all his campaigning had been worth it. You could see the anger and passion erupt on Kimmage's face as he reeled off the names of talented young men he had known who had lost their lives because of cycling's drug-taking shame.
You sensed he was doing it for them. Kimmage is one of a select band of cyclists to actually finish the Tour de France. He is also the best sports writer in Ireland by a long mile. Readers pick up this paper to look for the columns of Paul Kimmage. Let's hope he never gets off his bike.
When the British Medical Journal carries a full-page obituary, you know that the deceased was somebody special. Most doctors merit a few lines detailing where they went to medical school, what they did next, and the name of the disease that saw them off. In July, an Irish doctor who worked as a kidney specialist (nephrologist) in London, received the honour of a full page. Her name was Lavinia Loughridge, a 1954 first-class-honours graduate of Queen's in Belfast.
Her research work helped bring about the first successful kidney transplants in the 1960s. In 1992, comedian Les Dawson collapsed during a pantomime and ended up under her care in Westminister Hospital.
Dr Loughridge didn't mince words and gave him a right earful. "Don't forget: No smoking. No drinking. No late nights. You have been very ill - in large measure, due to your stupidity", were her parting comments as the entertainer left the ward. Dawson was delighted. He said she was a formidable consultant and that there should be more like her. He also claimed to have listened to every word she said. It may not have done him much good, however. In 1993, Les Dawson had an insurance medical at a private hospital in Manchester; while waiting for the results, he succumbed to a cardiac arrest.
Breath of a posthumous child
My scepticism about the breath of a posthumous child as a cure for oral thrush still knows no bounds, but my recent piece on the subject drew some interesting correspondence. One reader told me it sparked a memory of what happened to his family more than three decades ago. Their precious infant daughter survived a bad case of meningitis. She had been almost comatose for two weeks and the family wondered would she come around and what would be left of her if she did.
She was one of the lucky children to make it, but was severely malnourished with oral candidiasis on her eventual discharge from hospital. He can recall the image and smell of gentian violet medicine around her mouth. He said that every farmhouse in the country probably had a can of it somewhere. The problem is that children with oral thrush don't feed too well, and you can't recover well if you can't eat and drink.
A young nurse explained that the condition was notoriously difficult to treat at the time and gave the family the name of a girl, a posthumous child, who had 'the cure'. My correspondent initially dismissed the advice out of hand but eventually, when the child was no better, he relented to his wife's beseeching and they took the toddler to the posthumous child. A puff of breath and three prayers were exchanged for a box of biscuits. The child awoke the next morning and tackled her bottle with relish. Coincidence or magic? He is still not sure but he says that to this day he is choked with relief and gratitude. And so he should be.
Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the 'Irish Medical Directory'