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After guiding us through this crisis, Tony Holohan is now needed closer to home

Catherine Fegan

Tributes flood in as CMO tells of wife’s illness


National hero: Clodagh Murphy from Tallaght takes a selfie in front of a mural depicting Dr Tony Holohan as Superman. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

National hero: Clodagh Murphy from Tallaght takes a selfie in front of a mural depicting Dr Tony Holohan as Superman. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Colin Keegan

National hero: Clodagh Murphy from Tallaght takes a selfie in front of a mural depicting Dr Tony Holohan as Superman. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

'As A husband and father and as a public health doctor, I am conscious we have been through tough times in recent months and many families have been affected by the course of Covid-19 suffering pain and the loss of loved ones," said Dr Tony Holohan on Thursday night. Husband and father first, doctor second.

His gentle words, spoken as he announced his decision to step aside and care for his terminally ill wife, had been carefully chosen.

For the chief medical officer (CMO), the steady hand that has guided a nation through a crisis of an unprecedented scale, it was time to focus on tough times closer to home.

Away from the spotlight, one he has been thrust into since the arrival of Covid-19, Dr Holohan has been dealing with his own personal crisis.

His wife, Emer Feely, who is also a doctor, has multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and entered palliative care last Saturday. Dr Holohan said he wanted to give his "energy, attention and all of my time" to Emer and their two teenage children, Clodagh and Ronan.

The former public health doctor appeared cool, calm and collected as he delivered his statement, a testament to the professionalism for which he is so well known.

According to those who know him, the decision to publicly reveal the circumstances behind his decision to temporarily leave his role would not have come easy.

"Tony is very private," said a former colleague. "He's a consummate professional who leaves his private life at the door. He read the statement like any other, because that's Tony, totally unflappable. Every word would have been agonised over though because being so open about such a difficult juncture in his personal life would not have been easy."

More than ever, the value of his role as the leading public health advisor during the pandemic has come into focus.

Tough decisions have had to be made. Priorities reconfigured. Lives put on hold. Each is true not only in relation to the pandemic, but also in relation to what was going on behind closed doors.

Those close to Dr Holohan have known about his wife's condition for some time but the announcement still came as a shock. Within minutes of his announcement, paving the way for deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn to take up his role, tributes began flooding in.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly thanked Dr Holohan for his leadership as his predecessor Simon Harris described Dr Holohan as "a patriot, an incredible public servant, and a doctor who has saved thousands of lives through his leadership".

Since January, Dr Holohan has become the face of the country's Covid-19 response, fronting daily press briefings on live TV. Three months ago, he was largely an unknown civil servant. Now he's a household name.

His commitment to his job - undeniable given the gravity of his wife's illness - has always been a feature of his unrelenting work ethic.

On his first day as CMO in 2008, he had to deal with the dioxin scare - the Irish pork crisis of 2008 when it emerged unacceptable levels of dioxin had been used on farms supplying pig meat. He learned he had been promoted to the role at 5pm on a Friday and then the dioxin scare broke on Saturday and he was straight away fronting up the public health message. He works long hours and could never be accused of being work-shy.

"Tony has always been dedicated to his job," said a former colleague. "Public health is a very specific discipline, one that he cares passionately about. His role during the pandemic has been a lifetime in the making."

With his role at the helm of the Covid-19 response came great pressures on his time - National Public Health Emergency Team meetings that lasted hours, media interviews and appearances, daily briefings.

"It's been 24/7, go, go, go, for months," said one insider. "Relentless and unforgiving."

Members of the public, who have come to find comfort in his reassuring words, were caught off-guard by Thursday's announcement. Taking to Twitter, they thanked him for the "sacrifices" he had made for the country. No one would ever have guessed that beneath the cool exterior and unwavering focus was an inner heartache that many will be familiar with.

Behind the privacy of closed doors, away from the spotlight and the gruelling task of advising a nation, Dr Holohan is today spending time with his wife and children.

Time, so much of which he has given to the country over the past few months, has never been a more precious commodity.

Irish Independent