The real McCoy

May 20, 2008

If you enjoy fly-on-the-wall medical documentaries, then hold on to your seat as another series of Surgeons is about to begin. Following on from the success of the series produced by Mint Productions last year, this three-part observational documentary series returns to capture the real lives of both the practitioners and the patients in our hospitals. Prepare to be amazed.

The first programme looks at organ transplant surgery and the work of Oscar Traynor in St. Vincent’s Hospital and Freddie Wood in the Mater Hospital, in Dublin. The series also looks at some of the issues facing the health service today: waiting lists, public versus private practice, centres of excellence and hospital politics.

This is no docudrama. It’s the real thing and it provides an excellent insight into what goes on in our hospitals. The series uncovers some powerful human stories at the cutting edge of Irish medicine. If you’re squeamish, this may not be for you. Otherwise, I highly recommend it.

Thursday 22 May on RTÉ 1 @ 10.15pm. Don’t miss it!


Skin Deep

September 12, 2007

I’m pretty choosy about the television programmes I’ll watch these days but when I see something produced by Mint Productions, I never fail to be disappointed. Last night saw the screening of another programme in the RTE series ‘True Lives‘. It was called ‘Skin Deep‘ and covered the topic of living with a severe facial deformity. The message conferred by the programme was clear-cut – it’s no fun being facially different. Lives are changed forever by a facial deformity. It can have a devastating effect on people who have to cope with being ‘different’ in a world that’s obsessed with image and appearance.

Mr. Michael Early, Consultant Plastic Surgeon, explained how the anatomy of our faces and our facial expressions affect communication. He talked about the ‘triangle of communication’ – the area of the face between the eyes, the nose and the upper mouth. The programme featured five people with a variety of severe facial deformities which had been caused by genetics, or by an accident or as a result of cancer. These remarkably courageous individuals all possessed huge insight into how they are perceived by ‘normal’ people. Some people give them a ‘funny’ look, others look ‘curious’, while some take a ‘serious’ look and then ‘look away’ ashamed to have been caught staring. People who have a facial deformity lose their anonymity and become ‘different’. Their faces look unfamiliar and don’t conform to what ‘normal’ people look like. Society can be very cruel at times.

This programme has certainly helped me to keep my situation in context. I was pleased to learn last night that I’ve already taken the first step towards acceptance of my new look following recent surgery – I’ve got used to seeing my new face reflected in a mirror and no longer search for the ‘old me’. I know that true beauty comes from within. People need to look past the face which is after all, only skin deep – it’s what’s in the heart that really matters.


Junior Docs risk Burn-Out

August 1, 2007

The final (repeat) episode of ‘Junior Doctors’ lived up to expectation last night. Catherine, Paddy, Paul, and Sinead ‘survived’ their year as interns which they completed at the end of June last year. All were in agreement that they’d been on a huge learning curve but at a huge cost. Talk about mental and physical torture – it’s really inhuman what’s expected of our Junior Docs! And I’m not the only one to think this. Burn-out is a real issue. The problem is that the good ones get burned out as well as the ‘not-so-good’ and potentially fine doctors are lost to another profession. You couldn’t help but notice that the patients too are pawns in this crazy training scheme. As Sinead confirmed, it’s unfair on the patient to have one of these exhausted Docs attempt to insert a cannula when they’re ‘drunk’ with tiredness. I’ve been there, and while I have great sympathy with the junior doctors, I can tell you it’s not much fun being on the receiving end of this sort of treatment.

The series ended last year with an update on each of the four interns. It’s seems that each of these bright young things had their dreams come true. Catherine wants to be a surgeon (a Consultant, no less) and had commenced her training (a very long haul) as an Surgical SHO in St. James’s Hospital Dublin. Paddy who also had his heart set on surgery but had some doubts creep in, did the sensible thing and took a complete break from medicine while he completed 10 weeks in flight school to get a pilot’s licence before commencing work in Emergency Medicine in Sydney. Paul left Dublin for Waterford to begin his training in Orthopaedic Surgery, while Sinead got her wish to return to country life to train as a General Practitioner.

This series was an excellent ‘warts and all’ insight into the life of an intern. Intending medical students need to know the real story before they embark on this arduous career path. Let’s hope that Mint Productions keep up the good work and bring us another update on the progress of these four Doctors-in-the-making. I’d place bets that we’ll see Paddy as a HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) doctor before too long!


Junior Doctors

July 11, 2007

Another excellent four-part series by Mint Productions is being repeated on RTE 1 television (Mondays 11.45pm). Part 1 was screened last night and this ‘real-life’ medical drama should not to be missed by anyone thinking of studying medicine. Mint Productions also produced Surgeons, another brilliant series featuring the lives and daily work of Irish surgeons.

‘Junior Doctors’ is a fly-on-the-wall documentary series which follows the plight of four interns – Paddy Barrett, Catherine de Blacam, Sinead Beirne and Paul Carroll – over the course of their first year as junior doctors at St. Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin. As ‘interns’ they are on the lowest rung of the medical ladder. It is an incredibly hectic and demanding job where these junior doctors are expected to work 80+ hour weeks at the coalface, in life and death situations.

This is definitely not a job for the faint-hearted. The programme gives a very good insight into the life of interns as they come to terms with the incredible hardships, compromises and rewards of their chosen profession. It was interesting to witness last night how a simple, mundane task such as remembering the code to unlock a door, could become a real issue for over-worked and exhausted junior doctors.


Dem Bones – Dem ‘Surgeons’

May 22, 2007

The fourth and final episode of Surgeons lived up to expectation with a graphic insight into the world of orthopaedic surgery. This week we witnessed both hip and knee replacement surgery being carried out (with full sound effects included) by surgeon Sean Dudeney in Cappagh Hospital, whose other passion in life seems to be repairing old cars. Orthopaedic surgeons, we were told are the sort of people who “like fixing things”. That’s great, but I’m not completely convinced that I want to know exactly ‘how’ they go about fixing our bones and joints. It’s hugely impressive but pretty gorey stuff. Think ‘meat on a slab’ and you’re half way there. We were also introduced to the world of paediatric orthopaedics with complex spinal surgery being performed by surgeon Frank Dowling at Our Lady’s Hospital, Crumlin. His clear joy of working with children and helping to improve their quality of life was marred by the frustration he felt at the hands of HSE and the continuing Dickensian conditions at Crumlin. Frank Dowling told us that 15 years ago he spent two years on a committee having regular meetings with Health Board executives to plan out a much needed new out-patient’s department for Crumlin, right down to the nitty gritty of where the sockets would be. Just when they reached the final stages of negotiation news came through that the funding required was not available and Crumlin today remains in the same crummy condition with lack of privacy and space and it’s associated infection control risks. And our Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern continues to insist that our Health Service is not in crisis. It’s crumbling at it’s knees and even the best orthopaedic surgeons can’t fix it!

‘Surgeons’ was yet another fantastic series from Mint Productions. The skill of the surgeons was a wonder to behold. And the bravery of the patients portrayed throughout the series was thoroughly uplifting. It was an true insight into humanity. As we were told each week “surgery by it’s nature – must injure first in order to heal”. Bring on more please!


Breast Cancer – Surgeons RTE 1

May 15, 2007

Wow! What a programme. If you’ve had breast cancer or know someone who’s had breast cancer (let’s face it – who doesn’t know someone) then this was the programme to watch last night. The third episode of ‘Surgeons‘ (a 4-part series) covered the whole topic of breast cancer from diagnosis, through surgery to recovery and finally, to reconstruction of the breast. It was graphic stuff (not for the recently diagnosed or faint-hearted) and was hugely insightful into the emotional roller coaster that follows a diagnosis of breast cancer. You could not but be moved by the experiences of the women portrayed in the programme. I take my hat off to them for taking part in such intimate filming at such a difficult time in their lives. I also salute the two breast surgeons featured in the programme – Arnie Hill at Beaumont Hospital and Margaret O’Donnell at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Again, this programme allowed us behind the scenes of a surgeon’s personal life and gave us an insight into the dedication required to achieve a high level of skills. As a television viewer, I felt as if I was actually in the consulting room with the patient when news was given that her breast biopsy was malignant. I agonised with her as to what lay ahead. We were told that it is important when bad news is given to a patient that there is some positive slant to it – ‘hope’ is what keeps everyone going. As Arnie Hill said, “it’s not just the patient that you’re breaking this news to but their husband/partner, children and extended family as well”. It was also interesting to witness how this same young patient’s mother gradually came to terms with her daughter’s diagnosis by avoiding the use of the ‘C’ (cancer) word. She simply told people that that her daughter had a ‘tumour’ in the breast. When asked if the tumour was ‘benign’ (innocent) she would just reply “no” in an effort to avoid using the term ‘malignant’.  She was so supportive of her daughter and it was very moving to watch them both receive good news following the surgery.

Anyone who would like further information and support can contact the Irish Cancer Society Action Breast Cancer. These services are free, confidential and accessible and include a national helpline, publications, one-to-one support, breast awareness talks, and advocacy.


Surgeons – RTE 1 Monday

April 24, 2007

What a brilliant new television series! The same team (Mint Productions) that made “Junior Doctors”, last year’s successful fly-on-the-wall documentary series is now turning it’s attention to the surgeons. The first programme last night featured two neurosurgeons, Ciaran Bolger based at a Dublin hospital and Charlie Marks, in Cork. Both surgeons came across as hard working, highly skilled but still wonderfully human human beings. It was interesting to witness how much their work impacted on their overall lives. Both commented on how hard it was not to bring work worries home with them. You may be pleased to learn that neurosurgeons refrain from alcohol (just like pilots) in order to perform with precision the following day.

I found this programme facinating on several scores. It showed up these two surgeons for what they really are – highly skilled people – but thankfully ones that are still capable of sharing humour and compassion with their patients. If anything, for me the programme was most interesting from a patient perspective. It gave a hugely graffic insight into the impact that hospitalisation and surgery can have on the patients themselves. These were no minor procedures being performed and we were able to witness first hand the dilemmas that faced each of the patient’s involved.

If I had one criticism of last nights programme it would be this. Why did Ciaran Bolger have to wait until the night before a major operation to ask his patient to decide whether or not they wanted him to remove all of the tumour (with serious risk of loss of speech) or to take a slightly less aggressive approach (with the risk of leaving some tumour behind). I don’t know what you think, but to me this seems like a pretty major decision and one that could have huge consequences for the patient. Surely, this was a decision that should have been made at a pre-operative consultation at a time that was less emotionally charged, for everyone?

Next week’s programme focuses on the cardiac surgeons. I await with anticipation of another stunning insight into real life in hospital.