new career

The former Munster centre now helping to fight Covid-19 as a doctor in Cork

Tom Gleeson had to retire from rugby in 2012 due to injury.

THERE’S NO DOUBT that Tom Gleeson is following in his father’s footsteps and doing his old man proud.

The former Munster centre is now part of the fight against Covid-19 as a doctor in Cork’s Mercy University Hospital.

His dad, Ronan, was a popular GP in the north inner-city in Cork before sadly passing away in 2004 after battling with the effects of a brain tumour. 

Gleeson was in Australia on the Irish Schools tour that summer, and also expecting his Leaving Cert results, when his father died.

“He had been sick for almost a year at that stage and we knew that it wasn’t going to be much longer that he would survive,” says Gleeson, whose ambition to eventually become a doctor himself was solidified by the trauma.

“It was an awful year because with the disease he had, the tumour had grown to an extent where it affected his personality and he had an awful time in terms of his personality, seizures, all this kind of stuff.”

tom-gleeson Gleeson retired from rugby in 2012. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Having flown home for the funeral, Gleeson headed back Down Under soon after and played the Test against Australia.

“I think that’s what he would have wanted,” says Gleeson. “He would have hated to think I wouldn’t go back out.

“That was an extremely tough time but that inspired me to do medicine even more.”

Now, almost 16 years on, Tom is doing his father and all of his family proud. His long-term hope is to be a GP too but right now, Gleeson is in the thick of the coronavirus crisis working in the Mercy’s emergency department.

He started there last July, when he and his wife, Wailam, and now 13-month-old daughter, Ellura, moved home from Dublin. The Gleeson name has been familiar to many people coming through the doors of the hospital.

“My dad was very much a gas man, a man of the people. He wouldn’t have been someone who took any shit, I suppose. He loved the inner-city aspect of Cork and the people loved him there.

“It’s funny because he would have sent a lot of patients into the Mercy and I meet patients every now and then who are elderly who would see the name and ask am I related to Ronan Gleeson. It’s great to have that connection after all these years.”

The Covid-19 outbreak has made life in the Mercy very different, although 34-year-old Gleeson has been encouraged by the response.

“It has totally changed the climate, the environment, the infrastructures within the hospitals,” he explains.

“Maybe six weeks ago, it would have been a case where we had the whole trolley crisis with patients languishing on trolleys for days on end but it’s transformed into a streamlined service that’s very efficient.

“The crisis has really brought out the best in people adapting and making it as streamlined and efficient as possible whereas things have been inefficient before.”

tom-gleeson-and-lee-williams Gleeson in action against the Scarlets in 2011. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

While Gleeson outlines that Cork hasn’t been hit as hard as Dublin so far, there is still obvious risk involved in working on the frontline – a phrase that Gleeson doesn’t like using himself.

The fears are very real. Covid-19 is killing people in Ireland and around the world, meaning Gleeson and his colleagues are taking every precaution they can. 

For him, that has meant moving house. The Gleesons had been staying with Wailam’s parents since moving back to Cork, assessing their saving options and figuring out what to do next, but they’ve opted to get their own place during the crisis.

Former Munster team-mate Ronan O’Gara came to Gleeson’s aid when he put out a call for help in finding temporary accommodation on Twitter, with David Whelan of 1st Choice Property swiftly sorting him out. Moving into their own place has eased some of the concern.

“You’d be a fool not to be scared and have that element of fear,” says Gleeson. “I have a young family and it was even more complex because we had been living with my in-laws.

“That’s obviously not ideal with me being at a higher risk of getting the virus and potentially bringing it home. I felt under pressure from that point of view, under pressure with work and your home life, so it was the right decision to find somewhere alternative.”

Of course, Gleeson’s own health is at risk as he and others working in hospitals deal directly with those suffering from Covid-19, but he says focusing on the job at hand helps. 

“It’s just your job at the end of the day, that’s all we’re doing. We’re trying to do our best. You have to put any fears to one side and concentrate on the job at hand.”

Gleeson feels his previous life as a professional rugby player set him up well for dealing with the realities of being a doctor. 

Having first played with Highfield RFC, Gleeson was a schoolboy star with Presentation Brothers College and he rose through the Munster age-grade ranks to the academy and on into the province’s senior squad.

tom-gleeson-with-keith-douglas Gleeson playing for Cork Con in 2006. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

An intelligent centre, he featured 20 times for the province, largely in the Magners League during an extremely successful period when they won two Heineken Cups. Gleeson was having a fine campaign in 2011/12 but had to call it quits after fracturing his scapula against Ulster in December 2011.

He unsuccessfully tried to make a comeback with Cork Con – his club team after school – a few months later and instead focused on his long-term plan in medicine.

“Rugby seems like a lifetime ago and like I was a totally different person,” says Gleeson. “It’s weird to think I had those experiences but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have no regrets whatsoever about my playing days.”

Having already earned a Chemistry degree in UCC while playing, Gleeson took on a Master’s degree in Immunology in Trinity College, Dublin – something that’s very useful now.

“It was an up-and-coming field at that time and it really is relevant at the moment in terms of understanding diseases,” says Gleeson.

Five years at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland followed in order to qualify as a doctor, with Gleeson then completing his internship at St.Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin before the move back to Cork last year.

While he has so far resisted chances to go back into rugby through coaching, the overlap from his old career into the new one is obvious to Gleeson in aspects like self-discipline, preparation, attention to detail, and teamwork.

“There’s a lot of crossover in how you rely on team-mates. Working in the emergency department, you’re heavily reliant on colleagues, from the clerical staff, to the nurses, your fellow doctors, the people cleaning and sterilising the rooms. It’s certainly comparable to team sport.

“Probably the biggest thing from rugby that’s relevant to working in medicine, and particularly to working in the emergency department, is the ability to think and work under pressure in that fast-paced environment.”

tom-gleeson-and-charlie-gower Gleeson hopes the public can stick to government guidelines over the Easter weekend and beyond. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

He hopes to have his own GP practice in the future but for now, Gleeson is concentrating on helping us through the Covid-19 crisis.

As the country gets set for nice weather over the Easter weekend, he’s urging people to keep playing their part.

“Up until now, I think the public have done a great job in terms of minimising the spread of it. But the concern you would have is that people slack off and start going about their daily business again.. I think you can even see that in the last day or so.

“The fact that the weather is getting better and a bit warmer doesn’t help that. It’s going to take a huge public effort to have the discipline to maintain the measures.

“It’s good that we haven’t had a surge yet, we’ve all certainly done an element of flattening the curve and that needs to continue. The next week or two will be very telling.

“As a doctor, you’re used to looking after everyone else but you’re depending on the public to look after you in this crisis.”

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