Rural Round-up: Island hopping in the Atlantic

Dr Noreen Lineen-Curtis, a general practitioner from Achill, County Mayo, Ireland says that life as a rural GP on the West coast of Ireland is never, ever dull. Read on to find out why ..

At the mention of “island hopping” one conjures up an image of cerulean waters sparkling in the sun, a warm sea breeze and sipping a cold drink while waiting to embark on a grand vessel to be transported to another gem for exploration in the ocean.

How about shivering on a seaweed coated slipway, wrapped in a woolly hat and rain jacket while the biting January wind whips around your knees and you lug armfuls of medical equipment to the small currach waiting to take you across a choppy, iron grey sea, the wind blowing the white tops off the waves and flinging the salty spray in your face?

Well, it’s not always that uninviting…..sometimes it’s worse! (see (see photo at top)

Living and working on the West coast of Ireland, in a place called Achill Island, it is my privilege, along with my colleagues in the practice, to look after the medical needs of two offshore island called Clare Island and Inishbiggle. Achill itself is joined to the mainland by a bridge, much to the disappointment of many tourists who arrive here expecting to need to get a boat to visit us! We have a population of about 3,500 and there are about 160 living on Clare Island and just 16 on Inishbiggle.

We visit Clare Island weekly and the trip there takes about 45 minutes on a small ferry boat  (photo at right). We bring the medications out ourselves and run a clinic in the Health Centre there, with the local nurse who lives on the island, and then head off around the island on any necessary house calls to the elderly or housebound patients. There is always a warm welcome from the patients there and when the weather is good it is a most enjoyable day. On the rare event when the sun shines out of a clear blue sky and the dolphins swim next to the boat, leaping in the air, it easily surpasses any Mediterranean or Adriatic voyage.

Inishbiggle had 40 residents when I began working here, 14 years ago, but the passing of the years has seen the population dwindle and I expect that another 10 years will sadly see the island deserted, much the same as the island of Achill Beg. My father, a GP here for 40 years, can recall a time as a child when the primary school on Achill Beg held 60 children, but nobody has lived there now since 1965. Photo at right - off to Inishbiggle

We travel in turn to Inishbiggle every two weeks, again bringing the necessary medications and equipment to run a clinic in the old schoolhouse. The crossing is very short, only about five minutes, but the current running in the channel is extremely strong and dangerous, and on a windy day it is always a relief to get out of the currach and set foot on solid ground.

Back in Achill, our day to day General Practice is much like any other rural practice. Aside from the visits to the islands, we handle calls from them on a daily basis and make decisions over the phone. When an emergency occurs it may mean leaving Achill in a rush to get to the island in question – thank goodness for the local RNLI lifeboat which can speed us to Clare Island is less than 15 minutes – and/or co-ordinating the transfer of a patient from the island to hospital by lifeboat and ambulance or helicopter. The adrenaline rush while managing these emergencies is thankfully not something we experience too often, but certainly keeps us on our toes.

Life as a rural GP on the West coast of Ireland is never, ever dull. I love it, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

See more articles from the WONCA Working Party on Rural Practice feature