Getting to the heart of a good father
One of Maurice Neligan’s sons recalls the life and legacy of his eminent, and widely loved, surgeon father, writes JUNE SHANNON
NEXT MONTH marks the second anniversary of the death of Maurice Neligan, eminent heart surgeon, medical pioneer and committed patient advocate.
A compassionate doctor, Neligan was also a loving father and husband, and his sudden death was a huge shock and a massive sadness for his family to endure.
His son Maurice is also a surgeon and chief of orthopaedic surgery and director of the division of sports surgery at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin.
“My overriding memories are he would never miss a football match,” Maurice jnr says.
In fact, Maurice snr went to great lengths to guarantee that he never missed a football match. He was one of the co-founders of the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin, and on designing the new hospital, ensured his office overlooked the senior football pitch in the neighbouring Blackrock College, where his sons went to school.
“He was very warm, you never got the feeling that he didn’t have time for you, he gave a lot of his time,” his son says.
It is clear talking to Maurice jnr that he shares his father’s passion for medicine. He learned his anatomy skills from the very same books pored over by his father years earlier, and learned from the many annotations in his father’s recognisable hand that his dad was a very keen student.
Maurice Neligan snr had a natural affinity with people and with his patients in particular and people regularly still approach Maurice jnr with personal memories of his dad. From the junior anaesthetist who was given a pair of GAA tickets, to the young man who said he and his family would be eternally grateful to Maurice snr for saving his life as an infant.
“He had a phenomenal memory for names. People would be walking down the street and they would say: ‘Hello Mr Neligan, you don’t remember me,’ and he would say ‘I do. I operated on you seven years ago, I did two valves and such and such.’ That is a gift. He had that and that is a really nice thing to have,” Maurice jnr recalls.
Maurice says the upcoming second anniversary of his father’s death holds “bittersweet memories”.
“ not easy, not easy for my mum because I think he probably left a little bit too early . . . but we all agree that we wouldn’t have liked for him to have been sick. He wouldn’t have liked to be not able to go and play his golf, or be totally independent. Anything short of that would have really been very hard for him to take. So in one way good, and in one way bad. But huge happy memories.”
A very close family, Maurice jnr recalls that, like his siblings, he phoned home four or five times a week, and that he spoke to his dad the night before he died.
“He was quite fit and there was no indication that he was unwell at all. I don’t know if he didn’t know that he was unwell. He complained of reflux a little bit and he was always taking anti-reflux medication. So reflux, heart burn. I am not sure if he wasn’t having some angina or something like that. When you look back you might say that was it, so I don’t know,” he says.
According to Maurice jnr, his father had a personal aversion to doctors and any kind of medical intervention. Therefore, dying in his sleep, as he did, would have been his chosen way to go.
“If he was going to pick a way to go, this would have been the way to go, no doubt about it, absolutely no doubt about it because he was very happy.
“Men look after their cars better than they look after their health and that is well known. I think Irish males are becoming more conscious now of their health but it is a struggle . . . We are more aware of screening now and prostate and other things and I think people are aware but it does need to keep being pushed,” he says.
The shock of losing his father so suddenly to a cardiac arrhythmia, an electrical conductivity problem with the heart, was huge.
“You never imagine it, you just don’t imagine it,” he says.
“He had a very full life, full of ups and downs, but he was balanced. He was happy I think, at the end.”
After his father’s death Maurice said the family received numerous beautifully written cards and letters.
“People who had never met him sent us letters or come in here and say ‘I knew your dad, I met your dad once.’ still a huge connection with people, that is wonderful to see,” he says.
“That is irreplaceable . . . we all are only here for a period of time but I think he has a legacy which is a long-standing one.”
The Mater Foundation has recently established the Maurice Neligan Fund, which aims to build the Maurice Neligan Heart and Vascular Theatre in the Mater hospital in Dublin. This new theatre will be the first of its kind in an Irish public hospital and will mean better survival rates and shorter stays for patients who need complex heart procedures.
According to Maurice jnr, the new theatre is a fitting tribute to his father. Rather than a portrait or bust, which his father wouldn’t have liked, a theatre is something of practical benefit to the types of patients he cared for throughout his career.
Maurice jnr says he would also like to establish an annual debate or platform in his father’s name. A forum where independent thinkers could discuss issues of importance to the public health service and help drive policy. Issues such as universal healthcare that his dad fought so hard for, particularly in his later years through his regular Heart Beat column in this newspaper.
“We would love to do it with The Irish Times because it was a huge part of his life,” he says
Maurice jnr says his father hugely enjoyed writing his weekly column and they always had “an undertow of common sense, which is in short supply sometimes”.
“I think Dad would be disappointed by the lack of progress in all the issues he was so passionate about,” he adds.
While the Maurice Neligan Fund will be an important way of ensuring his legacy continues, his work will also quite literally live on in the hearts of his many patients and their ever-grateful families.
For more information on the fund, see materfoundation.ie