The First Word: Sláinte! Good Health

Irish American nurses, from the 1905 graduating class of Chicago's Mercy Hospital

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
August / September 2013

“What’s exciting is that millions of families . . .will have access, some for the first time, to quality, affordable options in just a few months.”  
    – Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius

As the national debate on Obamacare takes center stage we thought it an opportune time to interview Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius, née Gilligan, and to focus on health issues that affect everyone, but maybe the Irish a little bit more.

We looked to writers to contribute personal essays on mind, body and spirit, with rewarding results. Molly McCloskey writes about what it was like to grow up with a brother who has schizophrenia. Malachy McCourt writes on being sober for 28 years. April Drew tells of a friend’s suicide attempt, while Emma Graves Fitzsimmons contributes a piece about her brush with skin cancer – a must read for all fair-skinned members of the clan. In our history section one of the eminent physicians profiled is Dr. Thomas Patrick Fitzgerald, the father of dermatology, who was the first to research the effects of UV rays on different skin types.

And, of course, how could you have a Health and Wellness issue without the nuns? Many of the finest hospitals and nursing schools in the U.S. were founded by Irish nursing sisters. Mary Pat Kelly writes of their outstanding contribution, while Rosemary Rogers takes us to a nursing home for the aged that is run by Carmelite nuns.

I have an enduring image of visiting my mother in Nenagh Hospital and being struck by the high shine on the hospital floor, the crisp uniforms of the nurses, and being told by the formidable nun in charge  to stand up straight. I think there might even have been a sign that said  “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

I know my mother would have been interested to read our piece on Herbal Medicine, which has a long tradition in Ireland. I recall picking rose hips for a syrup she would make and dish out to us by the spoonful. Vitamins weren’t talked about back then. It was years later, when I picked up a bottle of Rose Hip Syrup in a health food store, that I understood that she was making sure we got our vitamin C.

No matter how diligent mothers might be or how well we care for our physical being, environmental factors and  genetic predisposition can make us vulnerable to illness. In my family it’s autoimmune diseases, the most serious being M.S. So naturally, one of the first experts we talked to was Dr. Noel Rose, the father of autoimmunology. We also cover celiac disease, which has a very high rate of diagnoses in Ireland, and learned of its association with other autoimmune diseases including hemochromatosis, which causes the liver to retain iron. The latter may actually have been a benefit during the Famine, writes Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., of Yale Medical School. He is one of many researchers who are finding links between starvation and its dire effects on later generations, including mental illness. Read more on this in Peter Quinn’s short but thought-provoking  piece, “Hunger and Its Children.”

Grief and grievances are also covered in this issue. My sister took a long trek on the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain to raise money for M.S. Ireland in memory of our brother David, and found it a healing experience. Meanwhile, Fionnula Flanagan advises that it’s time to let go of old grudges and welcome everyone back into the fold. Surely there’s healing in that!

One particular article I would call your attention to is “Reel Life Miracle.” It’s about Irish set dancing being therapeutic for people with Parkinson’s disease. To me the hero of this piece is not the doctor but the unnamed Co. Clare man he witnessed putting aside his walking aid and joining the dancers on the floor. By refusing to let his disease rule his life, and showing that while he couldn’t walk properly, he could still dance, he inspired a new therapy – based on Irish step dancing! –  which thousands of people will benefit from. Now that’s something to cheer about.

Sláinte!/Good health.

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