Friday 18 October 2019


He was apyschologicalcocktailof rampantegotism andprofessionalineptitude. But, amazingly, there are still those who swear by him

Things started to go wrong soon after Sheila Hodgers discovered she was pregnant with her third child. Neither she nor her baby would survive to tell the harrowing story.

All these years later her husband contextualises his account of what happened by saying: "I've been listening to the horrendous stories of these other women who were his victims and I have mixed feelings about Dr Neary because he was the one bloke I put my trust in. I can only say that, for me at the time, he was my champion."

Brendan and Sheila Hodgers were "very strong as a couple". Their dearest wish was to have another child to join their two daughters, then aged seven and six. Sheila had undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer but she was feeling fit and well when the pregnancy was confirmed. That was when the Hodgers were sucked into what Brendan describes as "our own Mother & Child situation".

At Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Sheila was denied all investigations, pain relief and treatment for cancer when symptoms appeared early in her pregnancy that the disease had returned. Though she was experiencing severe pain from a suspected tumour in her back, the hospital would not x-ray her on the grounds that it could endanger the foetus.

"A junior doctor said to me that if she'd been knocked down outside the gate and broken all her bones they would have no choice but to x-ray her," recalls Brendan, a senior trade union official. "But they did have a choice and they chose not to do it. She was in agony. One time, when I was getting out of the car in the car park, I could hear Sheila inside the hospital screaming in agony.

"We were never actually told the treatment was being denied. They just withheld it. I felt so helpless getting the run-around. I could see she was being neglected. I was a brash young man and I asked the hard questions but these were educated guys and I wasn't getting anywhere with them.

"Dr Neary came to me and said 'If you leave her in my care, I'll commit to you she will not have any pain. I will look after her.' And he did that. He made her pain-free as best he could."

Sheila and Brendan Hodgers'S third daughter, Gemma, was born at full term on St Patrick's Day 1980. It was not necessary to inform her mother that the child was dead. Sheila knew.

"I asked her did she want to hold Gemma and she said no," Brendan recounts. "I asked her why and she said: 'You've a funeral to arrange. Go and bury Gemma'.

"She said she didn't want a dog and pony show with a mother and child being buried together.

"That was the second-last time she spoke to me. The last time, she told me she'd been talking to Elvis Presley. I said, 'what did he want?' She said, 'a kiss' and I said 'wasn't it a kiss that got us into this trouble'."

Sheila Hodgers died, aged 26, two days after her baby's stillbirth.

Judge Maureen Harding Clark notes in her report of The Lourdes Hospital Inquiry that the Catholic ethos imposed by the Medical Missionaries of Mary order of nuns, who ran the hospital until the State bought it for IR£5.5 million in April 1997, prohibited the use of all forms of contraception.

The Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda in the Vatican, set up by Pope Gregory XV in the 17th century, was one of the chief funders of the Drogheda hospital and still remains a dedicated opponent of what it labels "sexual sterilisation".

"Sterilisation for contraceptive purposes was not permitted," Judge Harding Clark writes about Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. "The ethos allowed for 'indirect sterilisation' where the primary purpose was for medical reasons, although the end result was that the woman could no longer become pregnant."

The judge says there is abundant evidence that the unwritten ethical code was rigidly applied and that Dr Michael Neary and his fellow gynaecologist/obstetrician at the hospital, Dr Finian Lynch, repeatedly sought clarification of their position from the Department of Health, the Medical Defence Union and the North Eastern Health Board. The report states that the doctors were "obliged to operate in a grey area of indirect sterilisation."

No tubal ligation, whereby a woman's fallopian tubes are tied to prevent conception, was ever performed while the nuns ran the hospital. Yet speculation that Dr Neary was motivated by compassion to provide covert sterilisation for his patients does not fit with the facts of the appalling tragedy he inflicted on so many of them.

Some of the women were on their first pregnancies. Some of the babies born at the time of the hysterectomies died either at birth or shortly afterwards so that some women were doomed to childlessness. In the case of Kathy Quilty, who settled her action against Neary and the North Eastern Health Board for ?425,000 in May 2004, the hysterectomy following the birth of her brain-damaged son led to depression, bladder surgery, attempted suicide and homelessness.

But Dr Neary boasted, as he did in many cases, that he had saved her life. "I lost her twice on the operating table," he told Kathy's mother, Valerie. "I've had to take out her womb. In my 30 years as a surgeon, I've only seen this twice and I lost both of those women."

There is no unanimity of opinion about Michael Neary. Those who suffered at his surgeon's hands would be saints to ever forgive him but there is sympathy for him among his more fortunate patients. Some women still swear by him.

"I suppose somebody can be the two things. He was real no-nonsense," says Angela McCormick, a locally-based journalist who had four children under Dr Neary's care, without negative consequences. "He was very witty. People who didn't like him called him Sneery Neary. You had to know how to handle him. If you told him, for instance, that you weren't sleeping, he'd say, 'ah, sure you'll have that'. You learned there was no point in moaning to him. You didn't argue with

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss