Tuesday 20 February 2018

Rude health: Nameless hospital

Surgeons reveal rather sensitive skin about death notices, says Maurice Gueret, who prescribes bogbean for them

Mount Carmel Hospital
Mount Carmel Hospital
Maurice Gueret

I have been researching leucotomies in Ireland recently and there are fascinating stories to be told. Better known to patients as lobotomy, this was a surgical procedure that involved severing nerves in the frontal part of the brain, a briefly popular treatment in psychiatry here after World War II.

I wrote about the subject many years ago in this column and was pleasantly surprised by some of the positive outcomes that emerged about patients who underwent the operation. The first two dozen operations took place in the Richmond Hospital between the summers of 1946 and 1947.

Scrubbed up in theatre was Professor Adams Andrew McConnell, a Lisburn man who came top of his class at Trinity. Born in 1884, he was the pioneer of Irish neurosurgery. Leucotomy was not regarded as a particularly high-risk procedure, as few patients died. But the general mortality rate at the brain-surgery unit in the Richmond was very high in its early days, dealing, as it did, with surgery on brain tumours, cranial haemorrhages and serious head injuries.

In fact, surgeons in other specialities at the hospital were a bit sensitive about the fact that the Richmond Hospital featured in so many newspaper death notices. It was agreed that relatives of patients who died during brain surgery would be asked to put 'at a Dublin hospital' rather than mention the hospital by name. For many years afterwards, only doctors knew the truth behind the death columns. 'At a Dublin hospital' was the special code that almost invariably meant the Richmond!

Alcohol damage

All this talk and money being thrown at 'out-of-control' drinking can miss the fact that much of the real damage alcohol does in Ireland goes under the radar. The world and its media like us to focus on young people, particularly those caught on camera falling about and vomiting in the early hours of the morning. But that older generation who quietly buy their daily whiskey naggins and vodka bottles at the cigarette counter of supermarkets are more worthy of worry in the long term.

One disease I remember well from my hospital days is Korsakoff's syndrome, an alcohol-induced dementia, and I often wonder if we are under-diagnosing it in Ireland. The key symptom of this alcohol induced condition is amnesia, with accompanying apathy and poor insight. Patients can be irritable, indifferent to change and may confabulate by inventing things that never happened. A screening campaign late one night in the Dail bar could tell a lot.

Jeremy Clarkson

None of us might ever have heard of Jeremy Clarkson, had an English country doctor not gone out in an air raid to deliver a baby on a house call. The baby wasn't Jeremy himself, unreconstructed creature of the 1960s that he is, but the doctor was his grandfather, a much respected GP in Yorkshire. Jeremy Clarkson's first interview after leaving school was for a job in the Rotherham Advertiser newspaper.

He had taken the liberty of saying on his application letter that if he got the job, he would be the third generation of his family to be involved in Yorkshire newspapers. When quizzed about this, he said that his cousin had worked for the Doncaster Evening Post, and his grandfather, Dr Ward, had been a columnist in the Doctor's Gazette! The editor knew Doctor Ward. He had come out during a World War II air raid to deliver the editor's first child. Clarkson was asked to start work the following Monday. And that infamous career was born.

Mount Carmel Hospital

At a time when many hospitals are being downgraded and older patients are being hived off to the private-care industry, it came as a bit of a surprise to see Mount Carmel Hospital being purchased by the Health Service Executive for a price reckoned to be in the region of €11m. There was all talk of dozens of step-down beds, diagnostics, endoscopy suites and even day surgery. Government TDs were clambering all over each other to get their pictures taken in front of a Mount Carmel signpost.

Almost a year and half has passed now, and I don't believe a single patient or doctor has seen any benefit. Another couple of million has been spent on upgrades, and now that the HSE has footed all the bills, they want to outsource the running of 65 beds to the private sector. The capital cost of this project to date must be in the region of €200,000 per bed, and now they are looking to pay somebody else good money to keep clean sheets on them. We'd get far better value, and service too, from Mattress Mick.


A Donegal reader has been in touch about an old folk remedy she recalls from childhood, 70 years ago, which she says had a profound effect on the complexion of the forgotten county. The bogbean is a wild flowering plant that grows on wetlands, bogs and near ponds and canals. Stems are thin like bamboo stalks, with knots along them, and the leaves look like those of the common garden bean.

Locals would boil the stems, drain the black residue, and bottle the water. In springtime, Donegal children were fed this ghastly water every day to guarantee perfect skin. She tells me that she never had a pimple in her life. I'm not sure why the beauty trade imports so many highly-priced French beauty mulches when we may have a home-grown panacea on our damp doorsteps. Some caution is advised. Bogbean overdose can be rather unpleasant, and it's not recommended in pregnancy, before an operation, or if there is a bleeding disorder.

Dr Maurice Gueret is author of 'The Doctor's Case'


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