Dr Who? Meet Sumi Dunne the new medical expert on Operation Transformation

Dr Sumi Dunne, who recently joined RTE’s hit show Operation Transformation,opens up about work, family and loss. Margaret Jennings reports.

Dr Who? Meet Sumi Dunne the new medical expert on Operation Transformation

Dr Sumi Dunne, who recently joined RTE’s hit show Operation Transformation, opens up about work, family and loss. Margaret Jennings reports.

If the hit RTÉ health and fitness show Operation Transformation appeals to us all because of its humanity, then its new medical expert, Dr Sumi Dunne, is a perfect fit for the team.

As the leaders’ often emotionally moving stories unfold, the show’s experts need to draw on their own compassionate reserves to guide the five participants through their challenges and help them work towards their goals.

On a professional level, working as a GP in her local town of Portarlington, as well as a clinical lecturer in the Department of General Practice at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Sumi’s medical input brings a blend of the practical and the academic to the eight-week challenge.

Viewers will also relate to the fact that she is a busy mum of four, ranging in age from 15 to five, married to businessman Matt, and juggling all the balls, like lots of other couples around the country.

And now having joined the 12th season of the hugely popular OT series, she will also become one of RTÉ’s most recognisable faces, among the regular crew: Host Kathryn Thomas; fitness expert Karl Henry; clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy; and dietitian Aoife Hearne.

It could be a daunting task, moving into the media world and the public eye, but Sumi says: “I’m working with such absolute legends who have made it so easy for me to transition; it’s been great, really good.

“The format has been so successful too — the fact that there are four experts leading people through a change over eight weeks and that the change is not going to put you out of pocket; that it’s sustainable and that it’s accessible to the whole community — I think that’s a really important factor, that’s important to preserve.”

That accessibility to creating healthy lifestyle changes within communities is not just a financial one of course; part of the show’s magnetism is how it captures the hearts of what sometimes seems like half the nation, when one of the brave leaders has an emotionally raw moment.

In the first of the two episodes shown so far this season, viewers took to Twitter to express their support for 33-year-old Limerick woman Jean Tierney, who heartbreakingly revealed that her first pregnancy was ectopic; that she lost her daughter Sloane when she was just five days old; and that her third pregnancy was a miscarriage.

Sumi, whose mum passed away in September and who admits she and her family are still “taking one day at a time”, says she was really touched by Jean.

Hearing Jean’s story really moved me. I guess possibly a background of my own recent loss. She had a particularly difficult time with loss, but her humility and her grace, it was unbelievable

Sumi’s dad, is now living with the family in Laois and she sees this as a gift. “It’s lovely for the kids to have their grandfather in the house and he is wonderfully indulgent.”

She herself experienced that indulgence first hand as an only child, born in London, to Indian parents who emigrated to Britain in the 1960s. “Both my parents were very kind people and something I would try to do is be as kind as I can. I find it very difficult when people put other people down — for whatever reasons, whether it’s with a comment or a look.

“I also had a wonderful experience in medical school in being taught by very kind lecturers, who didn’t believe in teaching by humiliation. They taught with support; they demonstrated great leadership by leading with support and it was a really open environment to ask questions and to explore.

“And I hope that’s the kind of person I translate to, to my students as a lecturer, to my patients, and also to my family.”

Sumi’s mother, who died aged 83 while on a pilgrimage in Bombay “which completed her journey”, was also a strong female role model. “Mum was feisty and a nurse and gave me my work ethic. Part of the reason she came to the UK was because of her love of nursing — not to be held back, because when she was leaving India, nurses were hitting a glass ceiling in terms of career advancement. It was amazing to see her in action, getting up and going to work and coming back. Her speciality was in theatre.”

Sumi is modelling that work ethic to her children and as memories of the waft of freshly ground spices from her mum’s cooking remain vivid from her upbringing, she ensures that all the family sit down to a home-cooked meal every evening — and on Fridays, when she has more time, to a curry.

As her parents were of the Hindu faith, Sumi ate a vegetarian diet and although she later dabbled with meat and found she is not a fan, she does not impose that on the children

“We would have a healthy eating plan in the family. I cook one meal and all the family eat that one meal. I will bring the protein elements through meat into our dinners so that the kids can choose whatever protein element they want — be it a vegetarian option or a meat option, it’s all there for them.”

Her goal is to get a good dietary balance in what they eat — the protein, the carbohydrates, and also the fibre aspect. “But I do eat fish on occasions and I have to say I do like it. I’m happy to cook meat for the kids — I don’t want to impose my views on them too rigidly, but they have the choice and if they turn around and say ‘Mummy we don’t like this’, then we will explore the other options.

“I think growing up, giving them the options to explore everything in a healthy manner is good.”

She also jokes that husband Matt is “a big bog man” who enjoys his “mate and two veg”. They have been together 25 years and are obviously good buddies: “He was a bit slow off the mark — it took him a bit of time to propose,” she quips. “We are married 17 years now though.”

Matt works locally and if she comes home stressed, he is a soothing influence. “He is a great source of calming me down after a heavy day at work. He will say, ‘You know we have so many important things, and we are so lucky with everything that we have’.

“And it’s also very interesting to come back and to talk with someone who is not immediately in your field, so he’s a great person to sit down with and he makes me laugh — he made me laugh all those years ago and I’m still laughing now!”

He wooed her from London to Laois with “the roaring fire and the red wine — all of it!” she laughs.

They go for walks together with their two “gorgeous” golden retrievers who they adopted from owners who were unable to keep them. “It’s a great chance for us to catch up on the day and it’s our biggest way of relaxing too.”

And just like the healthy changes initiated in Operation Transformation, it’s a free activity that relaxes and keeps you fit. she says.

From an exercise point of view, Sumi does what she can at the moment. “I would say for the stage I’m at — four pregnancies later, and working full time, I’m in good enough shape, in that I’m incorporating exercise daily into my life.

“I’m really aware that for a lot of people it is ‘where can I fit that time in?’ And what I’m trying to do is things that I enjoy, that I can do on a daily basis, so I’m walking as much as I can. I’m using the stairs as much as I can. And when I’m watching the nine o’clock news, I have a 3kg weighted hoop on, so I’m hooping for that half an hour, because just at the moment — with all the commitments — I’m finding it a little more difficult to regularly get out to the gym or regularly go out for a run.”

She admits that like every busy mum around the country, she can sometimes blow a fuse. “It’s hilarious. The children can always see the tsunami coming and they just scatter to the four corners of the house. And then they wait four or five seconds and it settles down and then they reappear. It will be something like the dishwasher hasn’t been unloaded or the breakfast dishes.”

Just like Sumi was the apple of her parents’ eye, it’s obvious her own kids are the centre of her universe. What cheers her up every single day is coming home to them.

“It’s when I get through the door and I have the chatter of voices coming from all areas — ‘mummy, mummy, mummy, mummy’.”

They are thrilled to see her? “Unbelievably, it’s just amazing — even if it is a groundhog moment, that lifts my day. It’s that unconditional love and it just envelopes you.”

Operation Transformation, RTÉ One, Wednesdays,9.35pm

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