Thursday 14 November 2019

'When the next woman dies, how will the conversation go then?' - Holles Street Master Rhona Mahony says maternity deal must go ahead

Rhona Mahony said the deal 'must' go ahead
Rhona Mahony said the deal 'must' go ahead
Master of Holles Street Rhona Mahony in the hospital yesterday Photo: Mark Condren
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

If Holles Street Master Rhona Mahony had a stressful week last week - what with back-to-back media appearances, a very public row with a colleague on the board and a day job that requires her to oversee a busy maternity hospital - you would never know it to look at her.

She arrives for yet another media gig slightly late but wreathed in smiles, apparently delighted at the prospect of spending an hour of her precious time ferrying another journalist and photographer around the National Maternity Hospital.

The outdated hospital - last redesigned in 1936 - is at the centre of controversy amid protests over plans to relocate it at St Vincent's Hospital's campus in Ballsbridge, a move that would leave the Catholic Sisters of Charity owning the €300m facility.

Ms Mahony, the staunchest defender of the plan, has already had two appearances on national media when we meet, and it's just after 10am. She is animated, alert and interested, full of facts about the history of the hospital she runs, and brimming with enthusiasm for the project she is determined to bring to fruition - the relocation of the NMH to a site adjacent to an adult hospital, an opportunity dreamed of for decades to shrug off its currently shabby conditions for a state-of-the-art design.

The controversy has re-energised her, she says. She has never been more convinced the plan is right.

There are 30 births a day at Holles Street. The most ever was 42 in 24 hours.

Maternity staff working in cramped conditions at the hospital Photo: Mark Condren
Maternity staff working in cramped conditions at the hospital Photo: Mark Condren

The 1,000 staff, and the women and babies they care for here, have been "shoe-horned" into an impractical space, she says. The records here go back 100 years and Ms Mahony has analysed them in detail. This is one of the reasons why she wants to move so badly - she knows that more women are going to present for birth with more acute underlying conditions in the future, that more will need the services of an adult hospital like St Vincent's.

She is fluent and clear, carefully and slowly repeating sentences that seem to sum up her message and which I recognise from other media appearances.   

The only time she is (briefly) silenced is when she's asked if she is a Catholic.

She pauses then, but quickly says she doesn't think it's relevant. And she insists she brooks no doubts whatsoever - despite the public outcry - that the project will ultimately go ahead.

"It must." she says. "It just must.

But what if it doesn't?

"We have to look at the facts here and the fact is that there is a huge clinical imperative here for a new state-of-the-art hospital."

But what about the fact that the Sisters of Charity owns the land? Surely she understands people's concern about Church and State?

"That's a whole conversation that Ireland can have and they are welcome to have, but don't let women be done out of a hospital while people are having this long conversation."

And what about Peter Boylan, the former Master of Holles Street who resigned last week in protest over the move? At the time of the interview, Ms Mahony was due to see him at a board meeting of the NMH, the first since he went public with his concerns about a Catholic ethos impeding treatment at the new hospital, and since she had asked him to resign over it.

It's going to be a very awkward board meeting, isn't it? Like a dinner party with an uninvited guest?

Ms Mahony will have none of this sort of talk.

"Procedurally it rests with him now. We will continue to discharge our duty as a board - this is purely a corporate governance issue."

Mr Boylan attended the board meeting as scheduled but subsquently announced the he was resigning.

For Ms Mahony this whole saga is utterly black and white. St Vincent's and Holles Street - which are a few miles apart - already co-operate, often in cases when urgent extra care is needed. Intensive care facilities for mothers are available at St Vincent's. She seems incredulous that outsiders don't see the reasonableness of this argument, or are prioritising other concerns.

"This is unarguable. It's unassailable. It's a simple, clinical imperative," says Ms Mahony.

"It would be terrible if it was stopped because of a sideshow. When the next woman dies, how will the conversation go then?"

What of those who suspect Ms Mahony of wanting to drive through the project for personal ambition? Does she mind? Isn't she is being held to higher standards than a male Master would be, for instance?

But she has no time for this kind of talk. "Rhona Mahony is not important in this matter," she says. "Let's try and stick with the facts."

As we return to the exit she notes that she had her own four children in Holles Street and received excellent care, for which she is grateful.

"I owe my life to this place."

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