Sport's frontline workers: ‘We’re in a privileged position to help in a global pandemic’

Irish sports stars, past and present, are amongst the thousands of people leading the battle against Covid-19.
Sport's frontline workers: ‘We’re in a privileged position to help in a global pandemic’
Garda Aidan O'Mahony (right) with Garda David O'Sullivan at the door of Tony O'Brien.

Irish sports stars, past and present, are amongst the thousands of people leading the battle against Covid-19.

'We can’t do what the healthcare workers do, they are the real heroes'

Aidan O’Mahony won five All-Ireland SFC medals and two All-Stars during his 14 seasons with Kerry. Having previously been stationed in Anglesea Street in Cork city, Garda O’Mahony is now six years based in Tralee.

“I am part of our community policing team. One of the changes to our working life at the minute, and there have been many, is we have gone from 10- to 12-hour shifts.

“Another is the buddy system we are operating. I am attached to a new Garda, David O’Sullivan. He’s a Legion man. I’d have played against him at club level. He is my buddy for as long as this pandemic persists.

“There are 14 in the unit here in Tralee, but bar David, and maybe one or two other Gardaí who you might meet in the station while you’re having lunch, I don’t really see anyone. What they are trying to ensure is that if someone contracts Covid-19, it doesn’t bring down the whole unit.

“Our main focus of helping vulnerable people and those who have been advised to cocoon in their homes is no different to anywhere else. We collect and drop off prescription medicines, we’ll do the grocery shopping too.

“I called to Mayo All-Ireland winning footballer Paddy Prendergast and his wife Irene on Tuesday. They are living in Tralee. Paddy was sitting inside the window reading the newspaper. David and I sat on the porch and chatted away to him. We had a great conversation, most of which centred on Mayo football of course. It was nice for half an hour not to be thinking about what the country is going through.

“I gave my number to Paddy and Irene, and said, whatever you need, ring me, and even if I’m off, I’ll contact the station and it’ll be done. He is in great health, a mighty man.

“We visited another man who is 101 years of age. We were asking him, what’s the secret? He said, ‘oh, red jam, red jam for years’. We went into Castleisland, got a pot of red jam, and dropped it back to the house. Small things like that might make a person’s day.

“We are carrying out checkpoints everyday. The only trips we see people out for are work related, and most of them have letters. The other people are just making essential calls to the pharmacy and supermarket. This is what we are trying to take out of their hands a small bit.

“We send out a community alert text every day saying the Gardaí are in your area, so if you need something, ring or send in a text. Hearing and reading about the alleged coughing and spitting incidents is very disappointing. We are no different to others in that we are going home to our families in the evening. You are driving home from work and saying to yourself, have I a symptom because obviously you would be paranoid, even though we are wearing gloves and washing our hands.

“We can’t do what the healthcare workers do, they are the real heroes, but we can help them by carrying out checkpoints and calling to people who are isolating. Then you hear of somebody coughing or spitting. It cannot be tolerated.”

- Eoghan Cormican

‘The critical thing is to keep the number of ICU admissions down’

Former Limerick hurler and footballer Dr Stephen Lucey pictured at his medical practice at Roxboro Medical Centre. Pic: Don Moloney
Former Limerick hurler and footballer Dr Stephen Lucey pictured at his medical practice at Roxboro Medical Centre. Pic: Don Moloney

Former Limerick dual player Stephen Lucey is a GP in Roxboro, close to the city’s Old Christians GAA club. Had the senior footballers kept up their fine form, he would have been tending to them as team doctor in a Division 4 final in Croke Park last Saturday. Instead, the situation is considerably different.

“Since the thing started, we have had to change our practice. Nearly everything has had to be done by phone. I saw no patients Monday just gone and one the Friday before. We’re really trying to keep the footfall low.

“All the routine things are not happening. Blood tests are not being done in the labs because the technicians there have been redeployed to process the COVID-19 swabs or any other swabs, bloods or other samples that are urgently required in the hospital.

“A lot of patients who would have come in to ask for a doctor’s opinion on something they might have had for a month or two are not coming in. If you give things enough time, they have a habit of settling down but on the other hand you don’t want to be missing anything.

“I see the INMO and consultants in the hospitals are saying those with concerns around strokes and heart attacks don’t seem to be coming in as much.. They’re encouraging people with those cases to come in because if you need to go to hospital you still need to go or contact your GP because we haven’t closed; we’re still open for business.

“In practical terms, we had to put the door on the latch to stop patients walking straight in. They have to ring ahead or if they come to the door then one of the secretaries will come to the door and talk to them from the two-metre distance and see what they need. We’re trying to send a lot of the prescriptions by email, fax or have them collected at the pharmacies. When a patient rings in, their number is taken and we call them back and that’s what it’s been like for the last two and a half weeks. It’s like being in a call centre.

“The first day that we referred for testing was the day before St Patrick’s Day and that was bedlam. Then they changed the criteria last week and all the referrals we had done the previous week were cancelled and we had to go through the whole lot again so everybody was ringing in again. It’s quietened again. Most people are just staying in their homes and following the guidelines to stay away from each other and that is ultimately what everybody needs to do.

“I think restrictions will be extended after Easter Sunday. The best case scenario is getting cases down to zero. The critical thing is to keep the number of ICU admissions down. There were 255 beds in the country until the Government did the deal with the private hospitals. It cannot come to a situation like happened in Italy where there are too many patients and not enough beds and ventilators. That means the staff have to choose who to save and not to save. How do you make a decision like that? How would you feel if it was your grandmother or grandfather not receiving the necessary care? People’s actions now may prevent that from happening in a couple of weeks’ time.”

- John Fogarty

'I couldn’t get over how much time people spent creating fake news on WhatsApp'

Waterford senior hurling selector Stephen Molumphy is a commandant in the Irish Defence Forces. Under Brigadier General Patrick Flynn who is in charge of the 1st Brigade overseeing Munster, Carlow, Galway, Laois, Kilkenny, Offaly and Wexford, the former Déise captain is the commanding officer in General Liam Lynch Camp, Kilworth which has been preparing to become an isolation camp should the crisis worsen.

“We are a training camp where soldiers do all their shooting practice, from machine guns to heavy weapons like mortars, driving courses, tactics and procedures. It’s a huge area and the camp can take up to 350 to 400 and that’s where I am at the moment, in charge of that. “The army at the moment have been helping out with distributing PPE (personal protective equipment) and testing. We’re there to assist the HSE. I’ve four medics here and they have been going out helping the HSE with testing. Other units have helped set up testing centres. For the worst case scenario, the HSE had been looking for 10,000 beds. In that case, Lynch Camp would be an isolation camp and at a moment’s notice they would be able to put in up to 350 people if the numbers go sky high.

“We’ve been kept busy doing that and keeping in regular contact with the HSE but it’s a contingency matter. We’re there to contribute and help in any way we can for the primary response agencies but it’s the HSE and the medics who have been doing the unbelievable work.

“The medical side of the army are helping in a small way and we’re distributing essential equipment but we’re in the background right now. The 3rd Battalion in Kilkenny are assisting in all the testing centres in Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford.

“So that is what’s happening unlike what was being put up on WhatsApp last month. I couldn’t get over how much time people spent creating fake news like that especially at a vulnerable time for people. We obviously didn’t like it and straight away the public relations in the Defence Forces created a crisis communications team. There had been some crazy stuff on WhatsApp. We’re there to protect the people, protect the community and what was going out was false.

“Almost 99% of what is reported as news like that on WhatsApp is fake. All the soldiers were encouraged to ignore it. The official media outlets are the ones to follow. Every soldier was told to reassure family and friends that none of what was on WhatsApp was true. One of the sergeants here, his neighbour, an old lady, was ringing him up asking if it was true that the army were calling out the next morning. It was complete misinformation.”

- John Fogarty

'I deliver medicine and prescriptions for people that cannot leave their homes'

Harlequins' Roisin Upton pursued by Sarah Torrans of Loreto.
Harlequins' Roisin Upton pursued by Sarah Torrans of Loreto.

Hockey international Sarah Torrans was the youngest member of the Irish squad which won silver at the World Cup final and, until four weeks ago, had been training towards selection for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. But like so many others, much has changed in a month.

“I’m in my third year of nursing studies at DCU. My friends are working in hospitals to help during the crisis but I couldn’t do the same as I had missed some coursework this year due to training and playing with Ireland.

“It is very tough to be juggling sport and my studies especially as placements are extremely time consuming. DCU has been very good to me and allowed me to split up my modules in the lead up the Olympic Games — before they were postponed until next year.

“Even though I couldn’t work in hospitals, I still wanted to assist in some way. So now I help deliver medicine and prescriptions for people that cannot leave their homes. I work with Stacks pharmacy in Marley Park, which is near where I live. On a given day I might deliver to between eight and 10 houses. I might be the only person that they might see in a few days but you have to observe all the social distancing protocols. So I leave the prescription at the door and then step back a few paces and call them on the phone. We might have a small chat when they come to the door which is important for them.”

-  Colm O’Connor

‘You realise how afraid and isolated many people feel’

Boxer Adam Nolan represented Ireland at the London Olympics and was also a multiple National Senior Elite Welterweight champion. He is now a member of An Garda Siochana.

“I am a Garda stationed in Bray. I have been here since graduating from Templemore in 2008. For the last seven years I have been part of our community policing team which plays a vital role in dealing, in particular, with the elderly and vulnerable people.

“We have been quite busy for the last few weeks but that has ramped up a lot since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s announcement last Friday night week about restrictions and the cocooning of those over the age of 70. Since then we, and I’m sure every other station in the country, have been receiving calls from very worried and anxious people who are not allowed to leave their homes or are afraid to go out.

“The biggest concerns that elderly people have are around things they took for granted up until a few weeks ago: pension pickups, collecting their medication and prescriptions or just simply doing the grocery shopping. From the start of my shift — any calls to the station from the elderly about these type of concerns — are put through to my colleagues and myself. “This is our primary role now each day. When you call at these people’s doors you realise how afraid and how isolated many of them feel. Often they don’t have family living close by that they call on for help. They often have very good neighbours but are afraid to ask for a helping hand.

“When we call at the door, the first thing that people do is to ask us in for a cup of tea — but we have to explain without offending anyone that we simply cannot do that given the fears around infection. So we have a chat at the door, get a list of the jobs that they want taken care of and then we try to do those as quickly as possible.

“We are fortunate here that we have the local GAA club, Bray Emmets, on board assisting us. They have provided 80 volunteers, all of whom are garda vetted, and they are giving us a massive helping hand.

“By doing this work it allows our Garda colleagues to concentrate on all the other work and tasks that we are facing at the moment.”

- Colm O’Connor

‘Maybe there will be light in the tunnel sooner than we might hope’

St Finbarr’s senior football manager Paul O’Keeffe is a GP at the Broadale medical centre in Douglas. His St Finbarr’s team were due to begin their Cork premier senior championship campaign this weekend against Ballincollig.

“I have another place in Gardiners Hill in Cork city, but I have closed that temporarily. For the moment, I run a base out of one practice. It makes life a bit easier. The doors are actually closed at the Broadale centre. So if you call to the door, there is a sign saying, go back to your car and ring us. If I need to see someone, I will see them. I am seeing one to two patients a day, tops. When your normal day involves talking face-to-face with 30-odd people, it is just horrible to go from that to being on the phone all the time. It is like working in a call centre.

“We have all the protective gear in the centre, so if somebody is sick we can assess them, then you are saving them a trip to the hospital. I had a few patients in during the week with suspected Covid-19. You can check, among other things, their oxygen saturation. If that is after dropping off, you have a problem. Thankfully, the patients I have dealt with, they were waiting on swab results, but were stable and so could isolate at home. There are patients who are sick from other things that you have to see, but they have been few and far between. Over the past week, 80% of calls to the practice have been Covid-19-related. That said, this week was quieter than last week. Things are calming down a small bit because I think people are even frightened to come out of their houses.

“People are looking for a bit of guidance, and that’s understandable at a time of a pandemic. You can provide that over the phone. You are, of course, conscious that you don’t want to pick up the phone and say to somebody, you sound sick, head into A&E. This will only lead to hospitals being overwhelmed. If a patient needs to go to hospital, you send them in. But if you can keep them from going in and monitor them over the course of a few days, you’ll do that. You are doing your part by looking after your own patch of patients, and seeing the patients that need to be seen.

“I remember when I heard the forecast of 15,000 confirmed cases by the end of March, and when you actually started doing the numbers, my reaction was, ‘Jesus, this is going to be a horror show’. It was terrifying. As a medic, when you are looking at pandemics and epidemics, you are well aware of the wrecking potential that is there. I feel a little bit more optimistic the longer into it we go. We are doing the right things. If everybody isolates as much as they can, maybe there will be light in the tunnel sooner than we might hope.”

- Eoghan Cormican

'The response to NHS staff has been overwhelming'

Galway-born doctor and former Ireland captain Claire Molloy, 31, took an international rugby sabbatical last summer to concentrate on her medical career with a switch into Emergency Medicine at Cardiff & Vale University Hospital of Wales. The back-rower’s season with Wasps in the Tyrrells Premier 15s was declared null and void by the RFU on Thursday.

“I’m kind of in a Covid limbo, what do you do with your life when there’s sport in it, it’s a bit strange. We’re well looked after at work but it’s kind of weird being in Emergency Medicine because a lot of people with minor illnesses and injuries are staying away from the department.

“There’s no sport, there’s no nights out and our numbers are way down in terms of the minor attendances. But we’re seeing a different patient group coming in, the numbers are slightly less but our preparation for the Covid patient group is a little more time-consuming.

“Everyone still comes through us at the front door and we do the initial assessments whether there are Covid or non-Covid symptoms, they just have different pathways and we have a lot more kit on and we’re taking a lot more precautions. We’ve changed over from a rolling rota with a lot of different shift patterns to a three-shift pattern with team-based systems.

“We’ve got a dream team to work with for every shift from now on so we’ll quickly get to know each other. It’s very much ‘this is your team and you’re going to be working together for the next four months, go for it’. So we have a senior registrar, then myself, a junior reg, and then three SHO-level (Senior House Officer), more junior doctors, and then a consultant on shift with us.

“So we work on a two-on, two-off pattern with extra shifts, ghost shifts as they’re called where we’re on standby from home to cover for any last-minute sickness. That’s been rolled out this week and it’s a bit strange and my calendar’s kind of been deleted as such. No rugby, just work. I had to do it really, it was taunting me, like ‘oh, today’s Wasps training’. No it isn’t. I presume that’s the same with everyone’s calendar at the moment.

“The response to NHS staff has been overwhelming. The public clap on the last two Thursdays has been audible and it does bring a tear to your eye, that level of appreciation for staff that people have. We’re in that unique, privileged position that we do get to help out on the frontline of a global pandemic. We’re really lucky to get to do that and the generosity and well wishes of the public has been overwhelming.”

- Simon Lewis

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