Despite being one of the most sought-after spine surgeons in the world whose work has led to great advances in his field, Patrick O’Leary does not feel he is deserving of the alumni achievement award with which University College Cork has honoured him.
“Most of my focus has been on clinical work,” says Dr O’Leary.
“I wanted to see and take care of patients. A lot of the guys who get these kind of awards are people who publish and research. Edward Kiely [a consultant paediatric surgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and a former recipient of the award] was in my class and he is far more deserving of this award.”
The self-effacing 68-year-old, originally from Baltimore in West Cork, is a former chief of the spine service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, New York, a world leader in orthopedics, rheumatology, and rehabilitation. He left the role after a number of years, explaining that he did not want to block others who, unlike him, were “more academic”.
Dr O’Leary’s high level of sophisticated spine care has such a reputation that he has been sought out around the world by famous actors, world leaders, and professional athletes.
“We operated on VIPs from all over the world, but whether you were a farmer from West Cork or a famous sportsperson, you get the same care,” he says.
Dr O’Leary has consistently been named a top doctor in New York magazine’s popular best doctors issue. He is also named in the prestigious Castle Connolly Medical Guide, How To Find The Best Doctors in New York. He is in a select group of physicians named as one of America’s top doctors in another Castle Connolly book.
He received a lifetime achievement award in 2012 from HSS and he returns to his alma mater today to be presented with his alumni achievement award, the highest honour the university can bestow on a graduate.
After graduating from UCC in 1968, Dr O’Leary completed a rotating internship at the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, before a further three years of general surgical residency training at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. He completed his orthopaedic residency education at the Hospital for Special Surgery, Cornell Medical Center, and subsequently did a spine fellowship at the University of Toronto in Canada.
On the first day of his training in the US, Dr O’Leary’s mother was killed in a car accident in Clonakilty at the age of 43.
He recalls: “She died at the roadside on June 30, but I only heard about it the next day, July 1, which was my first day at work. It was a huge tragedy in our family, I was the eldest of four children. She was my number one love at the time, I was 23. I came home for the funeral and it was very hard going back to Utah after that. It was a whole different world, a very conservative place, and I knew only one or two people in the whole city.”
Despite this traumatic start to life in the US, Dr O’Leary went on to achieve great success in orthopaedics. He specialises in the surgical management of disorders of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, including revision surgery. With a special interest in surgical technology and advances in surgical technique, he collaborates with colleagues in Europe and the US. He has maintained a 25-year relationship with Prof Jurgen Harms in Germany, who is considered by many to be the greatest spine surgeon of his generation.
At the presentation of his lifetime achievement award in 2012, Thomas P Sculco, surgeon-in-chief at HSS said: “Dr O’Leary’s incredible skill and dedication to his patients have made him a leader at HSS and in international spine surgery. His work has improved surgical techniques and patient care and led to great advances in the field of spine surgery.”
Over the course of his career, Dr O’Leary has seen spine surgery change beyond all recognition.
“Spine surgery really took off from the mid-80s and 90s with the introduction of CAT scans, MRI and spinal cord monitoring [a method to detect injury to the spinal chord during procedures] which allowed us to do much more complex operations.
“Before then, we often did surgery on spines and broken necks while the patient was awake and sedated. But anaesthesia has become so advanced that the patient can now sleep through surgery.”
Over the years, he has treated many professional sportspeople — including some of the top basketball, American football, and hockey players in the US. Advances in technology mean many athletes can now play professionally after surgery — some are even good enough to return following a broken neck, although no insurer will no cover them to play at this level following such a serious injury.
Despite his modesty, Dr O’Leary is glad of the opportunity to return to his alma mater to express his gratitude for the education he received there.
When asked if he had considered returning to work in Ireland, he says he was never invited to take a position here, adding that maybe he should have enquired more about opportunities in spine surgery back home.
“Even though I’ve been away for 35 years, Ireland will always be home,” he says. “You never really settle. You always long to go home like the salmon going upstream.”
The other recipients of UCC alumni achievement awards are Una Fox, vice-president in retail and e-commerce technology at the Walt Disney Company; Jim Clarken, CEO of Oxfam Ireland and executive director of Oxfam International; Leslie Buckley, chairman of Independent News and Media; and Denis O’Mullane, emeritus professor and consultant, Oral Health Services Research Centre, Cork University Dental School and Hospital.
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