Alumni Spotlight

UCC medics return from abroad to help on the frontline

24 Apr 2020
Dr Lorna Kelly and Dr Aidan Coffey on their graduation day in 2017

Dr Aidan Coffey and Dr Lorna Kelly returned home from New Zealand to lend their efforts to the battle against Covid-19. They are now working in Bantry General Hospital.

In recent weeks, many Irish healthcare workers abroad have returned home to help with the national fight against the coronavirus. UCC medical graduatesDr Aidan Coffey and Dr Lorna Kelly are two of these healthcare workers. We chat to Aidan about why the couple decided to leave New Zealand to work on the frontline back home. 

  • Why did you decide to return to Ireland? 

Put simply, for family, friends and for ourselves and the Country. We couldn't countenance being so far from family at a time of such uncertainty, and it didn't seem right that our friends and colleagues back home were responding to such a dreadful situation, while we were still working in relatively normal circumstances (that has since changed somewhat!). However, this pandemic will be a defining challenge for Ireland, but it's one everyone is tackling together and there's something quite patriotic about that. We wanted to be a part of the national response, and play our part, rather than observe from a distance. Most of the reasons above are as much about being selfish, as they are about being selfless, but I think it's a selfishness that certainly does more good, than harm. 

  • What was the situation like in New Zealand before you left? 

For most of March, living in New Zealand felt like a different type of living to Ireland. Friends and family in Ireland were social distancing, businesses were closing, but life was carrying on as normal in New Zealand. The weekend before we left was like no other I've ever experienced though - uncertainty and fear for family at home hung over everyone like a fog; the sadness of leaving friends in New Zealand and knowing that our lives as we'd known them would not be the same for a long time left a permanent knot in the stomach. I think we felt pretty powerless and helpless, being so far away from home. The virus was rampaging through Europe, borders were closing all over the world, and we were trying to get out of the country while airlines were still flying. Flights were booking out in front of our eyes. The situation was changing by the day, if not by the hour. We managed to get the last flight to Dublin from Dubai, but our friends had their flights cancelled, and so are now just bunkering down in New Zealand. For the likes of them, or for people whose roles abroad were critical for their service, it just wasn't possible to go home, and it's particularly difficult for them. 

  • Were you concerned about the health of your family when you heard about the virus in Ireland? 

Absolutely - the worst cases projections of the virus were almost apocalyptic - and it would have been incredibly naive on our parts to think our families would somehow escape or be spared. We couldn't have lived with ourselves if, God forbid, anything happened to them, while we were stuck a million miles away and unable to come back. Since coming home, even though we can't see them any more than we would if we were still abroad, there's a definite comfort in being that bit closer, should anything go wrong.  

  • Where are you working since returning to Ireland? 

We've taken up roles in Bantry General Hospital, where thankfully (touch wood!) things are reasonably under control. Essentially, we're the back-up if any doctors get sick or have to self-isolate. It's certainly not the 'getting-stuck-in' situation we had envisaged when we were coming home. However, smaller hospitals like Bantry are particularly at risk of critical staffing shortages if there were to be an outbreak, so although it's frustrating not being able to do more right now, we recognise that it's important everyone buys into the overall strategy.  

  • Are you concerned about the challenges ahead? 

It's encouraging to see the curve being flattened, so it seems we're going in the right direction, Covid-19-wise. Looking beyond that (if that's possible at the moment!) it's going to be a huge challenge getting the health service back on track - outpatient appointments are at a standstill, and patients will need to be accommodated in clinics that are already beyond capacity. Political and healthcare leaders need to be under no illusions that the increased energy, staff and resources currently directed at controlling Covid-19 will, in time, need to be aggressively redirected towards making up the shortfall in 'standard' healthcare provision that many patients will have experienced as a result of the pandemic. The increased pressure on healthcare workers will therefore continue for long after the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, and that will pose a significant challenge to everyone. 

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