Irish doctor in New York: ‘The pandemic was a great time of unity’

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Working in a cancer hospital during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York wasn't easy, but it also brought about a sense of unity in the hospitals across Manhattan, says medical oncologist Róisín O'Cearbhaill.

Born and raised in Ballyburke, Galway, O'Cearbhaill studied medicine at NUI Galway between 1996 and 2002, during which time she also had an opportunity to maintain her interest in languages.

"I completed my first year of medical school through Irish and spent my fourth year studying in Grenoble, France, on an Erasmus scholarship, " she says.

An internal medicine residency at the Mater hospital in Dublin followed, during which time she completed a six-month senior residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota in the United States.

"I began my medical oncology fellowship training with the Royal College of Physicians with rotations at St James's, St Vincent's and Beaumont hospitals."

In 2008, O'Cearbhaill was awarded a scholarship by the Irish Society of Medical Oncology to complete a two-year advanced fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York, which is one of the world's leading cancer hospitals. "I was appointed as a consultant thereafter and have been at Sloan Kettering ever since."

Cancer centre

O'Cearbhaill currently serves as the research director of the gynaecologic medical oncology service and as the clinical director for solid tumour malignancies, cellular therapy service, with a joint academic appointment at Weill Cornell Medical College. In the 13 years since starting at the cancer centre, she has developed her clinical and research experience in the treatment of gynaecological cancers and has seen first-hand the benefits that clinical trials offer patients.

“My research focuses on the development of novel targeted and immune-based approaches to improve outcomes for women with these cancers. It’s been very rewarding to be involved in clinical trials that improved outcomes for patients and have helped define new standards of care for patients.

“Sloan Kettering has over 1,400 doctors dedicated to cancer care so we are referred patients from all around the world. I thoroughly enjoy the learning experience working as part of a multidisciplinary cancer care team.”

She also serves on several international committees and is the chairwoman of Developmental Therapeutics for NRG Oncology, where she leads a large phase II/III clinical trial for women with ovarian cancer.

“They are world leaders in cancer clinical trials so this has been an amazing opportunity for me to work with leaders in clinical research and I have particularly loved the chance to help mentor researchers who are starting off their careers.”

O'Cearbhaill says she is "passionate" about supporting young researchers and facilitating access to clinical trials both in the US and Ireland; hence she joined the American board of the Children's Medical Research, a foundation that raises vital funds for the National Children's Research Centre in Dublin.

Awards for her work include a Conquer Cancer Foundation Career Development award, a Young Investigator award from the Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation and an Excellence in Research award from MSKCC among others.

O'Cearbhaill lives with her husband and three children on Roosevelt Island, a narrow island in New York's East River between Manhattan to the west and the borough of Queens to the east. It runs the equivalent of East 46th and 85th Street in Manhattan and is a mere 240m wide and 3.2km long.

Amazing views

“It’s technically part of Manhattan and so all the amenities of New York city are within close reach but thanks to geography it is isolated from the bustle of the big city.”

Roosevelt Island is connected to Manhattan via a famous red cable car and has amazing views of the skyline. It is a great place to raise a family and we’ve lived here since we moved to New York.

“The island has a small town vibe and its close-knit community has provided our family with a home away from home. It has wonderful sports facilities including swimming pools, tennis courts, soccer and baseball pitches, and several parks, encircled by a riverfront promenade.”

O’Cearbhaill’s three children attend an international school which has provided them with great opportunities to experience the diversity and cultural richness of New York city, she says.

“We are very keen to maintain our connection with Ireland through the New York Irish community. Our young daughter had fun playing Gaelic football with the local club in Central Park but all three are most passionate about baseball and so we have also had to adapt.”

O’Cearbhaill says working during the first wave of the pandemic in New York in the spring of 2020 was particularly difficult.

“Patients were afraid to come into the city. We had to quickly figure out new ways to care for our patients in their homes, when possible, so that we could minimise their exposure to the virus without disrupting their vital anti-cancer treatments.

“We lost some patients to Covid-19 which was very tough for families and also for the healthcare teams. Across the US we saw the disproportional impact of Covid-19 on underserved communities and the undeniable need for healthcare reform.

“Nonetheless, the pandemic was also a great time of unity. Hospitals worked together, we took patients from other hospitals, as did they. There was a real sense in New York that we were fighting this pandemic together. The whole experience gave me a deeper appreciation for my colleagues and team as well as so many others who kept the city’s essential services running.”

Currently, O’Cearbhaill is preparing for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at NUIG, so she keeps close contact with Galway.

“We love visiting our family and friends at home so it was very hard not seeing them for almost two years.

"Not being able to travel overseas for a funeral was particularly hard and the experience for many Irish immigrants. My uncle, Fr Edward Grimes, died from Covid-19 last year. It was bittersweet to attend his funeral via Zoom but it also meant that family members scattered across the world could join.

“Over the years we have really enjoyed our family and friends visiting us in New York so we are looking forward to everyone being able to travel to the USA again.”

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