In tears, they touched the doctor's hands as they filed past his casket
Dr Patrick Kelly had a true vocation - but who will take his place in the community now, asks Claire Mc Cormack
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
Dr Patrick Kelly lay in repose in Rooney's funeral home in Ballymore, Co Westmeath, dressed in a fine suit and a flamboyant neck tie that was his sartorial signature.
As mourners filed past his coffin, silent but for the odd mumbled prayer, they laid their fingers on the back of his hand as if seeking a final benediction from the man they called "the doc".
Understandable in a way. After all, these were the healing hands that had cared for this community for more than 40 years. He had ministered to their sick children and he was the doctor who provided the last comforts and care to their elderly parents as they approached the final journey. It was Dr Kelly who broke the news to women in as gentle a way as he knew how that "yes, there is a lump".
And so his own final journey to the graveyard in the heart of the village was a dark, dark day for the people of this community that straddles Westmeath and Longford. They knew he wasn't well and now the day they all feared had finally arrived. Their doctor, their confidant, wise keeper of their deepest secrets, was gone.
It's a bleak reality facing many communities throughout rural Ireland as a significant number of GPs are now in the 60 plus age group, facing retirement and passing away.
Dr Kelly, (69), died suddenly at the Midlands Regional Hospital in Mullingar on Saturday, January 2. He was a caring dad of seven, including baby Luke who died, and had suffered a series of heart problems over the last two decades. He is survived by his loving wife Louise and their twins Ben and Emily, aged just three-and-a-half, as well as his adult children Anita, Cathal, Sarah, Adrian and their mother Anne.
But despite the on-going battle with his own health, Dr Kelly remained fully committed to his work and his 1,500 patients spread across the midlands.
To him, his work was a vocation. To his patients, he was irreplaceable.
Originally from Navan, Co Meath, Dr Kelly was widely regarded as the "Ultimate Rural GP". He saw his last patient on St Stephen's Day - a week before his death. And he even took calls and checked in with patients from his hospital bed, just 48 hours before he passed away.
And so the news of his death spread quickly.
Calls flooded in to neighbours, word reached the emigrants abroad via email, Skype and phone. They recited the Rosary in churches and prayed for him and those he left behind.
And there was worry too. How would they cope without him? Who would be their doctor now? No one else knew their medical history. They all believed they had a unique connection with him.
There was a bond.
On January 5, thousands of people descended on the small rural village of Ballymore to attend his wake. Mini-buses, taxis and cars, with registrations from across the country, parked anywhere they could find a space and as close as they could to the funeral home on a bitingly cold and wet day.
They stood together, united in grief. Generations of families, including children, waited patiently. The procession to pay final respects was 100 yards long.
Many emigrants, home for Christmas holidays, felt blessed to be there; that they could say goodbye. Within a couple of hours, the pages of six large condolence books gradually filled with signatures inside Rooney's. Across the road, the doctor's country practice lay in darkness.
Inside, his extended family greeted sympathisers and thanked them for their kindness. A woman, a patient of Dr Kelly for decades, said: "He knew all our secrets."
His wife Louise gently replied: "Well, he took all your secrets with him."
Dr Kelly arrived in Ballymore in the early 1970s.He took up a new post covering the village, near the historic Hill of Uisneach, and the town of Ballymahon, Co Longford - just a few miles out the road.
He was a charismatic, straight talking, funny, irreverent individual, with a love of flamboyant ties and the horses. He was an instant hit. His commitment, 24/7 accessibility and genuine affection for his patients brought more and more people to his door.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, his wife Louise said his relationship with his work was "all giving, all consuming and nothing else - it was his life".
"He went above and beyond for them and made each patient feel like they were the only one," she said.
"The older people had such respect for him and him for them. People had great faith in him and they were able to bare their souls to him, really," she said.
He attended at clinics in Ballymore and at the Medical Centre in Ballymahon.
"He had a wicked sense of humour. Laughter was very important to him and he loved winding people up," said Louise.
Another way he relaxed worried patients was by telling them tales about his "babies" - Ben and Emily.
In his office, he had a white board full of photographs of the twins.
He even shared a video of his twins dancing at their Christmas show. "At home the halo came off and he was just dad and husband and was always iPadding the twins," said Louise.
"On Christmas night, before Santa came, he was up recording them as they slept," she said.
Ben and Emily brought "Daddy's iPad" up as a gift during the offertory procession at their father's funeral. Teresa Dunne, who worked with Dr Kelly for 30 years, says there is a great sense of sadness in the community since his death.
"It's difficult without him, we miss him whistling and singing coming in the back door. He was a very understanding man. People are in tears coming into the surgery, especially if it's their first time in since it happened," she said.
Dr Padraig McGarry, chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation's (IMO) GP committee, says the death of Dr Kelly is a devastating loss to rural GP practice. "Paddy was a true rural GP. Even though he had ill health, his commitment to general practice never waned," he said adding that there is constant pressure on rural GPs to work excessive hours.
There is also a lack of resources and many doctors just can't get cover if they fall ill or simply need a break.
Up to 20pc of rural GPs are now aged 60-plus, while 33pc are aged over 55. Currently, the IMO are in negotiations with the Department of Health to reinstate key supports to maintain a viable practice in rural Ireland.
Dr McGarry says the plight of GPs will be a central election issue for rural Ireland. When asked about routine pressure on her husband to provide efficient medical service, Louise said "at times he was struggling".
On a few occasions, Dr Kelly had to return to work after a stint in hospital because he couldn't get a locum to cover.
"He did advertise to try to get a bit of locum help or part-time work but there wasn't anyone jumping in for the job," she said.
"There is no one to replace them so they're stuck. Rural GPs are giving their life's service to something they love and enjoy but the lack of resources is a problem," she said. On the day he passed away, she had to set aside her grief and track down a locum to cover his practice.
Louise is deriving great strength from the people.
One morning last week, she awoke to three big bags of turf placed at her backdoor. Pots of soups and freshly baked buns have also landed at her doorstep.
"The outpouring of support and neighbourly goodness is just unbelievable. The calls and texts are constant and I know Pat would be so overwhelmed by it all," she said.
When asked how he'll be remembered, she said: "His kind hands and his kind heart are his legacy."
As for the local community, they anxiously await the arrival of a full-time doctor to the area.
However, their last memory of "the doc" is bringing some comfort.
At mass on Christmas morning, the Kelly family were sitting up near the top of Ballymore church.
And when Fr Gerry offered them the sign of peace, little Emily decided to exclaim to the priest, and the entire congregation, that Santa had been in her house the previous night.
"He brought me a buggy and a pram and Ben got a tractor and trailer," she said.
With that, the entire church erupted into fits of laughter.
Eight days later, Dr Kelly passed away.