Cardiologist without a heart

Renowned surgeon Risteard Mulcahy's new autobiography reveals a technical wizard lacking in emotion, writes Aoife Finneran

Aoife Finneran

BLAME it all on the romantic images in TV medical dramas and those impossibly perfect hero surgeons in bodice-ripper novels. Or perhaps it’s an accident of human emotional programming. Whatever the reason, we have a natural tendency to view doctors and surgeons as kind, compassionate, caring people who should be afforded the status of demi-gods.

Perhaps this is what makes the actions of renowned cardiologist Risteard Mulcahy so hard to accept. A noted heart expert, writer and campaigner, behind his public image Mulcahy lived a private life that was completely at odds with his image as a great healer. And, as his nauseating new memoirs show, the man who is so skilled at fixing hearts is disgustingly nonchalant about breaking them.

Maybe it’s trite to expect a cardiologist to view the heart as anything other than a vital organ. The nowretired Mulcahy certainly doesn’t appear to have been swayed by symbolism, given that he was never too concerned about inflicting emotional wounds on others. You might say it was a case of a cardiologist completely lacking a heart of his own.

In Memoirs of a Medical Maverick, he recalls with detachment the day he walked out on his wife and six children after more than 20 years of marriage: “Nobody, not even my wife, Aileen, knew I was planning to leave until almost the last minute. “That moment was probably the worst of my life, a terrible, searing experience. I remember Aileen was in the nursery with our six children and I just said: “Goodbye,” I couldn’t say or do anything else. My eldest son walked out with me and I got into the car, mute, while he stood crying.”

At the time, Mulcahy was head cardiologist at St Vincent’s Hospital and lived a well-heeled life in South Dublin. And yet, despite two decades of marriage, the cool manner in which he walked away echoes the actions of the fictional womanising character Ross O’Carroll- Kelly. Any child of even the most sensitively handled broken marriage will admit to being in some way affected by it. Yet the dispassionate tones used by Risteard Mulcahy suggest otherwise. He has the nerve to suggest the break-up was “well handled” and that his decision to literally walk out on his family did not impact on them.

“They were grand”, he explained. “Children are intrinsically selfish, they don’t really mind what happens once they have security.”

It was with this same sense of arrogance that he appears to have approached his marriage to the long-suffering Aileen. Despite bearing him six children, she evidently wasn’t up to scratch for the self-important cardiologist who remarked: “I found her dogmatic and too assertive for my temperament”.

It would perhaps be foolish to suggest that Mulcahy should have considered compromising in a bid to find an acceptable middle ground with which to continue his relationship. After all, the word “compromise” generally doesn’t feature in the vocabulary of selfimportant men who live their lives inside a bubble of reverence and adulation.

His memoirs amount to a rash of insults on his nowdeceased first wife. Such was the intellect of this highbrow physician that he claimed to have “nothing in common with his wife”. Now there’s a way to pay tribute to the woman who shared two decades of your life.

“It was depressing to go home to her every evening,” he claimed. No doubt it would have been equally depressing to see your husband arriving home each evening knowing that he considered himself too clever to engage in conversation.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of his postmarriage affairs. He met and fell in love with Louise, whom he married after a 20-year courtship. Yet even that great love wasn’t immune to Risteard Mulcahy’s desire to have it all. Bizarrely, he has chosen the very public arena of his memoirs to explain that he had an affair with another woman while dating Louise.

In pompous rambling, he explained: “She was a cardiologist and a marathon runner. She shared both my intellectual and physical needs, including running every day during our meetings together. She had the firm athletic physique and the devotion to fitness which appealed most to my sensuous nature. No lovers were ever happier and more compatible. We met perhaps three or four times a year but during the intervening months between meetings I was contented by a passion in repose.”

This self-obsessed, narcissistic declaration reeks of sexism. Clearly not a man for monogamy, Mulcahy took it as his due that he should date a second woman who could fill in the gaps.

Laughably, he then claimed to have learned that “a marriage which is not born in Heaven may be best dissolved, but that success in such a step depends on generosity and forgiveness on the part of parents and children, and understanding on the part of friends”.

That may be so, and yet Mulcahy doesn’t appear to have abided by the rules of this lesson. There is no generosity in a man who leaves his family without warning, and no amount of money or material comforts can compensate for such cruel absence.

Perhaps the eminent cardiologist would do well to come out of retirement temporarily and perform one last medical task, a full internal examination on himself. One suspects that there’s a vacant space where a loving heart should normally live.