'I said to them, "Look, why don't you amputate the legs?" I'm not going to be walking again'
Fianna Fail MEP Brian Crowley can't wait to get back to Brussels after three years of surgery, writes Ralph Riegel
BRIAN Crowley urged doctors to amputate his legs in a desperate bid to cure wheelchair-related skin sores that have required 25 different surgeries in the past three years.
Ireland's longest-serving MEP admitted the past three years have been "a nightmare" as his work has constantly been interrupted by the need for repeated plastic surgery on his paralysed legs.
As well as having to endure 25 procedures, Mr Crowley, 49, lost his younger brother, Flor, in a freak car crash in 2009.
His long-standing Presidential election hopes were also wrecked amid internal Fianna Fail wrangling in 2011.
But the west Cork-born MEP is adamant that his health is now improving and he is looking forward to returning to Brussels duties in September. He will defend the European parliament seat he has held since 1994.
"I have been in a wheelchair since a fall in 1980 and it has only been in the last three years that these problems have arisen," he said.
For 17 of the 20 years in parliament he was among the top five attendees in Brussels despite being in a wheelchair. Now he dreads looking at his EU attendance record.
"But what can I do? When this happens you have to get medical treatment and do what the doctors order. I wasn't sick as in feeling desperately ill a lot of the time and I never stopped working thanks to my phone and my laptop," he said.
"All the stuff I had done was cosmetic. They had to reconstruct part of the skin on my legs, do skin grafts, move muscle to try and give more protection to certain parts of my legs.
"The difficulty was that each surgery had to be done separately and they had to wait for me to recover before they could undertake the next procedure. To recover I had to lie in bed in hospital. It was a special silica bed that was kept at a constant 18 degrees. The bed moves with you so there is never any major pressure put on the skin."
But at one point he proposed a radical solution to his doctors.
"I said, look, why don't you amputate the legs? The biggest problem most people have with amputation is, how do I learn to walk again? That is not an issue for me. I'm not going to be walking again.
"But the doctors were against that. They said that if you do that it could change something else – it could alter things and have unforeseen consequences. It was the final, final option in their minds. I saw it as a quick, easy solution but they were very much against doing something like that."
He added: "It is now a management issue. If I have a problem with my legs I need to get it seen to straight away. And the doctors are hopeful that the procedures I have now completed will make a big difference."
The surgery was required because, like most people confined to a wheelchair for a lengthy period, Mr Crowley suffered from skin and circulation problems with his legs.
An unexpected consequence of so many visits to Cork University Hospital is that the veteran MEP saw at first hand the impact of health and social services cutbacks.
"I have always considered politics to be about people. It is about trying to help people with their problems and make their lives better," he said.
"What I have listened to in hospital waiting rooms over the past few years is very sobering. The truth is that the most vulnerable in our society are being hit hardest in the effort to restore the economy.
"It is very difficult to look at people who are physically exhausted from having to deal with a sick
or a special needs child and are then emotionally and psychologically drained from having to deal with bureaucracy over their child's needs. They are frustrated at cutbacks that they see as unfair and at the constant perception that they are not being listened to.
"We all talk about the challenges within the healthcare system but we don't talk enough about the incredible work that is being done. It amazed me the number of people that were being dealt with despite the pressure the staff were under – not just the doctors and nursing staff but the cleaners, the catering people, they are all under pressure and suffering because their hours have been cut and changes were coming. I was hearing this every single day."
The MEP said his greatest concern was that Ireland's social divide was widening to alarming levels due to the decisions made to restore the economy.
"It isn't just Ireland – it is Europe and the entire world. I have a lot of concerns about where we will be in Ireland and in Europe in 10 years' time. My biggest fear is that we may well have hell to pay for some of the decisions that are being taken now.
"I would be one of the first to say that the Seanad desperately needs to be reformed. But why abolish it and not reform it?"
But Crowley still believes in politics and in the EU.
"If you look at Fianna Fail and what happened in the 2011 General Election, there is a great lesson to be learned. The party was punished by the electorate for the mistakes it made. But it was also a question of the party being reminded by voters that its priority should be improving the lives of ordinary people.
"I believe that lesson has been learned and the policies and ideas are being put forward to help tackle the issues facing Irish people. That is why I got into politics in the first place. It is a cliche to use the phrase 'people politician' but that is what all politics should be about. I love my job and I am just looking forward to getting back to working the way I have for most of my time in Brussels."