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Dublin: 16 °C Tuesday 2 June, 2020
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The Armagh football and Superleague netball star working as a GP through the Covid-19 crisis

Caroline O’Hanlon tells The42 about working on the front line and not having time to think about missing sport.

SHOULD THINGS BE normal this weekend, Armagh dual star Caroline O’Hanlon would probably be preparing for an inter-county football match on home soil after a top-tier netball clash across the water yesterday. At least.

coh Armagh, Manchester Thunder and Northern Ireland star Caroline O'Hanlon. Source: Inpho/PA Images.

The odd time, there’s a club clash in either code thrown in too.

The Orchard footballer — in her 19th season of inter-county duty — is well used to it at this stage. She works as a doctor, and plays Gaelic football and netball at the highest level, commuting between home soil and England where she plays for reigning Superleague champions Manchester Thunder.

Times are very different now for O’Hanlon, who is a General Practitioner in Newry. Work is hectic through this Covid-19 pandemic, and that’s her main focus right now.

“It’s been a very funny time,” she told The42 this morning. “There’s been a lot of transition. At the moment, we’re working in a different way to the south which makes it even more complicated.

“There’s still a lot of discussion and uncertainty in terms of what way we’re going to manage things going forward. Our job role certainly has already changed dramatically. We’re seeing a lot less patients face-to-face and doing a lot of our work via telephone triage. In that sense, your day is very, very different.

It’s difficult because we’re used to seeing and examining patients, and you can tell a lot about that. You don’t have that reassurance of having a look at someone. That can be challenging, and it’s going to change a lot more in the coming days and weeks.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and apprehension about what that will look like, and what we will be asked to do. We’re just getting ourselves as prepared as possible so you do the best you can for your patient.”

O’Hanlon usually works a three-day week, but that’s looking to increase significantly over the next while.

“At the moment, thankfully, our numbers are still low in terms of cases. There’s lot of discussion and planning at a higher level. In the coming days and weeks, I’m going to be in most of the time.

Right now, it’s still planning phases and getting staff set up and prepared and trained to be ready for when the numbers surge.

“In General Practice, there’s as little contact as possible,” she adds on the Covid-19 crisis. “We’re trying to maintain our normal day to day practice because obviously, normal conditions don’t go away. The same bugs and flus and things are going around at this time of the year, and that’s what makes it more challenging.

“We’re trying to minimise contact time. The same as in hospitals, they’re trying to do a lot more via telephone and getting set up for video. It is challenging.” 

The 35-year-old was one of many Gaelic games stars to take to social media and share some key messages as the grave severity of the virus hit home on these shores. She spoke of the responsibility we all have to protect ourselves, but more importantly, the vulnerable people around us.

The game is this: we slow the spread of the virus, she said, before hammering home the medical advice that’s been circulating of late.

Although working for the National Health Service [NHS], O’Hanlon has been critical of the UK Government and their Cobra meetings — one involving a cross-departmental committee coming together to respond to national emergencies — online.

“It definitely has been difficult,” she explains. “Where I live, it’s so close to the border and there’s a lot of people crossing over, back and forth. We would watch the southern news so we’re very much aware of what’s going on with our neighbours.

“It has been very difficult. You saw the level of response, you saw Leo Varadkar and his, I suppose, iconic address to the nation on St Patrick’s Day. It was frustrating that things didn’t appear to be moving as quickly.”

She’s experienced this crisis from different points of view, seeing life in the North, the Republic and in England over the past few weeks.

While most sport was at a standstill the weekend before St Patrick’s Day, O’Hanlon had netball business to attend to across the water. She helped Thunder remain unbeaten as they were 18-point winners over Surrey Storm.

Precautions were taken and guidelines were followed, of course, as the Covid-19 crisis began and the two doctors on the Northern Ireland team went head-to-head in O’Hanlon and Belfast native Niamh Cooper.

“It was difficult,” she says of the situation. “I was flying from Dublin, everywhere was in shutdown in Ireland and the game was going ahead in England, where they obviously had a different strategy in place with the government. It was very weird.

“The netball ones took all the precautions that they could at the game, we knew that it was probably likely to be the last game with the way things were moving everywhere.”

The decision was promptly made to suspend the league, putting players’, supporters’ and volunteers’ safety first.

While that win came as O’Hanlon’s last competitive outing, the weekend before was a typically manic one as the Armagh ace featured both sides of the Irish Sea and played three games in 48 hours.

On the Friday night, she captained her netball club Larkfield to a 60-57 victory over Belfast Northern Ireland Premier League title decider. On Saturday, she starred as Thunder produced a stunning comeback and recorded a dramatic last-gasp win in Manchester. And she was denied a terrific individual treble on the Sunday, as Meath beat Armagh in the Athletic Grounds — though O’Hanlon did top-score for her side.

How strange it must be, going from that to individual training…

caroline-ohanlon O'Hanlon on the ball for Armagh. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Yeah, it’s strange,” she laughs. “The weird thing though is that I haven’t actually thought that much about it because things have been so busy.

“You’re trying to get things set up, you have other responsibilities with family, and trying to make sure that everybody’s looked after so that whenever things were going to clampdown, measures were in place. 

It did put things in perspective and obviously we worry so much about sport — we know the importance of it in terms of keeping everybody’s morale up and the social side of it. But when it comes down to it, your health is the most important thing and looking after your friends and family. Sport and competitive sport certainly wasn’t a priority.

“The GAA, LGFA and Camogie in particular have been brilliant in how strong they have been in their stance to promote social distancing,” O’Hanlon continues.

“I know my own club were adamant that people weren’t to be meeting up, there wasn’t to be any organised training. They’ve been very strong in that. And a lot of clubs across the country have been providing contact numbers for elderly people, support within Whatsapp groups for players if anyone is in trouble of finding it difficult being isolated.

There has been a really good community spirit from the clubs. That is the uniqueness of the GAA in that it’s about much more than the actual game, it’s about the support that’s there. I think the GAA have done really, really well in their handling of this.

“The social distancing needed to be really strong because they have such influence, and I think that’s been really crucial. That’s what crosses over to us here locally in terms of the social distancing. We were probably doing it before the UK had initiated it because of the GAA and the LGFA.”

With the Superleague suspended and the Ladies National Football Leagues on these shores cancelled and not to be completed, O’Hanlon welcomes both decisions.

This is all about more than sport, and as she said in her video, the real game now is slowing the spread of the virus.

“The LGFA have really just taken the pressure off counties and players,” she nods. “While that uncertainty was there, players and county teams were maybe feeling, ‘Should we be guiding or encouraging people to be training more?’ Whereas that just gives a little bit of leeway. 

netball-world-cup-2019-day-five-ms-bank-arena On the ball at the Netball World Cup last summer. Source: Nigel French

“While obviously we want to continue exercising and training, it just takes that pressure off I think. It was inevitable with the timeframe that it wasn’t going to be seen out. Obviously if they had to have extended it, it would have ran into championship… well, hopefully. 

I think it just took the pressure off, and it was good timing. It supports the government stance and takes a lot of pressure off everyone when the decision is made. That uncertainty is the hardest thing for most people to deal with.

While continuing to train individually, O’Hanlon praises the togetherness of the sporting community online. The challenges, the videos and the memes have been a shining light through this dark time, and staying positive is key.

“It’s crucial to keep active for your physical and your mental health,” she concludes. “It’s good for your immunity obviously to keep your physical health up, it’s really important.

All the things online on social media have been brilliant across all the sports; the challenges give people a focus and a target. You want to keep the spirits up because it is very difficult for everyone.

“Me, being able to go out to work, people are probably envious that you have something to do. Sometimes the hardest thing is to sit in the house and do nothing, and feel that you have a lack of purpose because people are used to being busy, at work and on the go all the time.

“That’s very, very difficult, so I don’t think we can underestimate how well everyone is doing in that sense.”

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Emma Duffy

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