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Dublin: 9°C Sunday 29 November 2020
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'I moved out as I didn't want to put my parents at increased risk'

Limerick joint football captain Donal O’Sullivan on working as a doctor during the Covid-19 crisis.

Limerick football goalkeeper and joint captain Donal O'Sullivan.
Limerick football goalkeeper and joint captain Donal O'Sullivan.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE PLAN WAS for this weekend to revolve around Limerick football.

Get on the bus and make the north-westerly trek to Sligo. Stand tomorrow in Markievicz Park as goalkeeper and joint captain.

Chase the prize of league promotion from Division 4. Secure a run out for a final in Croke Park next Saturday.

But none of that features on this weekend’s agenda now. The last few weeks have taught Donal O’Sullivan that there will be nothing mapped out with certainty for a while.

It’s been a strange few days for all the staff in the University of Limerick Hospital. A sense of waiting for what is coming to hit them as the escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

O’Sullivan is currently on the GP scheme in Limerick after completing his medicine studies and intern year in Galway. He spent some time in an emergency department in Wellington in New Zealand, worked for three months last summer in palliative care in Milford Hospice in Limerick and since then has been in the main hospital in his native city.

He has always attached a level of significance to inter-county gaelic football but knows where the important business for the next while will be.

“It’s the calm before the storm here at the moment. Obviously we’re expecting the number of cases to increase over the next two weeks. We’re trying to delay the surge. You look at the situation in Italy and China, they’ve had an awful time of it.

“I’m working in general medicine in the hospital, so we would be coming in contact with query Covid-19 patients, treating them and as the numbers increase, that’s the reason why we’re being prepared in order to hopefully try and delay the surge.”

With the demands increasing, there has been a spike in the hours they are putting in. It’s become a necessity to learn how to operate outside their natural zone.

“At the minute we’re upskilling. For instance Wednesday we were learning about ventilators and that was given to non-anaesthetic staff which generally wouldn’t be the usual area of expertise but they want to upskill everyone that they can.

“We’re getting a lot more on infection control and personal protective equipment kind of measures in order to prepare everyone as much as possible. They’re redeploying staff and we’re working extra shifts. They’ve started us on a new rota with the view to people stepping up and covering as expected if people start becoming unwell and have to self-isolate. It’s difficult but we’re trying to get our act together.”

This has not been a sudden scenario to deal with. Trying to prepare weighed on his mind as those weekend assignments in the football league cropped up with Limerick, facing Wicklow at home in late February and a long trip up to Antrim in early March.

When he moved back from Galway last July, he returned to the family home while working in Limerick. The frenzied turn of events of the last few weeks forced him to take stock and gauge the risk.

“When it started escalating around Europe and China, we were starting to make plans. On my mind in particular were just worries about passing on the infection to family and friends. I moved out as I didn’t want to put my parents at increased risk.

“I’d a good chat with my family, my sister in particular, and one or two others. We felt that was the best plan of action in light of the increased risk that is there. Both my parents are nearly 70, Dad would have one or two medical conditions in the background so we just felt that the best thing would be to move out until hopefully things settle down.

“It is difficult. I missed my godson’s first birthday there on Paddy’s Day. But in light of the climate at the minute it’s a necessary sacrifice that you have to make. Other people are facing challenging times as well, it’s not just frontline staff, you see people losing their jobs.”

His girlfriend Helaine is a doctor as well, recently returned to base in Galway after a spell in Castlebar.

“She’s been putting me up and I’ve been commuting from Galway. She’s able to relate and that was part of our thinking as well that we’re more or less at the same level of risk in so far as picking up the virus with our line of work. It’s a bit more of an acceptable risk if that makes sense.

“Like up and down the country people are having to make these difficult decisions to socially distance from their families. At least we’re lucky that we still have a job and we can do our bit.

“The other side of it is that we’ve kind of had unprecedented spare time together. Similar enough to every inter-county hurler or footballer in the country, she doesn’t see me for a large part of the year and weekends are taken up.

“We were FaceTiming her sister Caroline the other day, Helaine and her are both doctors. Caroline’s going out with Jason Doherty from Mayo and they’re the same with the spare time he’s had.”

jason-doherty Mayo footballer Jason Doherty Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His concern of heightening the risk to others was not just restricted to family. Before GAA activity was shut down, he felt there was an issue with the amount of time spent in the Limerick camp.

“I was concerned on the basis that we had players with loved ones that have medical conditions in the background. For instance Seamus O’Donnell, it was his birthday on Thursday, we were onto him on the Limerick football WhatsApp, he’s a selector and our goalkeeping coach.

“I’d have more direct contact with him and he had heart trouble last year. The last thing you’d want to do is come into a dressing-room and due to my line of work, pass on a significant infection.

“So being honest my head was fried initially in so far as what to do. There was also a few concerns about personal protective equipment, stocks running out, which is a significant worry for frontline staff. All these things are on the mind.”

The Limerick football group is a good one to fall back on. If kickout strategies and training loads are regular topics of discussion, the sideline brains trust are also available as sounding boards for matters off the pitch.

“Two of the first people I’d have rang were Billy (Lee, Limerick football manager) and Adrian O’Brien (strength and conditioning coach). I didn’t want to alarm my parents at the time. The support was unreal. Billy’s background is that he’s a manager in Ballygowan. He would be a huge mentor to all of us, outside of the football side of things, he weighs heavily on his life experiences and his big thing would be supporting people in difficult and high-pressure situations.

billy-lee Limerick manager Billy Lee

“We were getting a lot of professional advice but it’s nice to run things by someone who has a fresh pair of eyes on the situation. He put me down the right line in talking to the family and coming to the decision about moving out. I feel a lot more comfortable that I’ve done as much as I can from reducing their risk while at the same time working away.

“Adrian then gave me a bit of a programme to do, a bit of running to freshen the head and also sent on a few links, a few interesting YouTube videos and previously he would have given us a bit of homework outside of football with some good reading. Just a couple of things to distract from the pressures of sorting with work. I rang Stephen Lucey as well for a bit of professional advice.”

With Limerick’s league promotion bid parked, the support he has received as part of the frontline effort tackling coronavirus has been striking.

“The support has been unbelievable. My club Monaleen have managed to sort me with short-term accommodation while I look for something a bit more permanent (in Limerick). These things you take for granted until you come into a time when you need it. So fair play to everyone.”

When they can return to something as familiar as football is anyone’s guess. O’Sullivan is a long-term presence on the Limerick squad, knocking around since 2011. He’s seen enough bad days at the office to have appreciated the last while.

A landmark win in Munster last May against Tipperary. Picking up the McGrath Cup on a Saturday night in January in the Gaelic Grounds at the expense of Cork. A flying start to the 2020 league, four wins on the bounce before a blip against Antrim.

iain-corbett-and-donal-osullivan-with-the-mcgrath-cup Iain Corbett and Donal O'Sullivan after Limerick's McGrath Cup final win in January Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“We’d had a decent start and we’d been building over the last year in particular after getting a result against Tipperary. It was within our own hands. We got a bit of a lesson against Antrim but the goal would be promotion and a game in Croke Park. It’s uncertain what’s going to happen with the league now, we’re just waiting to see how this all pans out.

“Everyone’s been given individual programmes, I’m sure every county in the country has something similar. From that point of view it’s hard to prepare for a game that no one knows is on. It’s just a question of maintaining your fitness and going out to kick a few balls when you can. That’s what I’ve been doing but more to freshen the head than anything.”

The social distancing from team-mates that he is so accustomed to spending his weeks with has been jarring.

“Obviously the right measures were to postpone everything but football is a huge part of what we do. You train all year round, the league is a big emphasis for us. We were aiming for promotion, now everything is up in the air. Personally seeing the lads and going training helps destress a bit at the best of times so you kind of miss that as well apart from the serious business end of the football.

“The lads would still be onto you and there’d be a bit of slagging. I’d the same pair of runners for about 18 months and I got a new pair last week just when I was at a loose end. A few would be slagging me that I wouldn’t be the most fashionable that I’d be wearing the same pair of runners for work, going out, going to the gym so throwing that up on the players’ group lightened the mood. A bit of craic.”

limerick-players-prepare-for-the-second-half The Limerick footballers before January's match against Cork in the Gaelic Grounds. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

That can all wait though, there are more pressing matters to focus on. O’Sullivan is heartened by the public response and hopes it continues. He is keen to press home the key messages that all in the health service have been sharing this week.

“The public are starting to play a blinder, starting to mobilise. It is so important the social distancing, the hand hygiene, the coughing and sneezing etiquette. You see the efforts being made by the Government to emphasise the importance not to spread misinformation and listen to reliable sources. It’s important that people listen and take the advice seriously.

“The call to arms to help the health service and also the vulnerable people in the community was important because if you look at the situation in China and Italy it was very difficult over there. We need to be as mobilised and as ready as we can be with surge that’s come down the line. The best thing we can do is try to delay the surge.”

The spring plans have changed. Getting set for what is in store is all that matters.

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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