Reality Bites – Tales from the new normal: Caitríona Cormican

Galway camogie star and GP in the frontline of a life and death battle

Back in January, when the coronavirus was a vague, far off thing, Caitríona Cormican was already starting to hunker down.

Centre-back on the team that won last year's camogie All-Ireland, she's a GP in Galway city in real life. Needless to say, life in a doctor's practice doesn't get any more real than in a pandemic.

When it was still only in Asia, it was a potential problem. As soon as it landed in Italy, that potential got a puff of the bellows and any notion that we'd be spared the flames disappeared. Once it was in Europe, it was a clear and present danger. Cormican moved then and there to treat it as if it was already in Ireland, for the simple reason that there was a reasonable chance it was.

"When it was in China, we were starting to have practice meetings," she says now. "We were starting to talk about it, prepping ourselves, getting plans in place. If a patient came in with it, what would we do? How would we handle it? We had all that discussed. But of course, we were thinking, 'well look, it won't come to that'. But then when it came to Italy, you were saying, 'okay, this has become a reality. It's 100 per cent going to hit Ireland now'.


“So from that point on, we were getting more and more prepped each week, looking at videos of how to put on the protective equipment, how to take it off, just making sure everyone in the practice was ready if it came to the point where we were faced with it. All so that if it happened, we wouldn’t be panicking.”

Now that she’s in the maw of it all, her working life has changed in an eyeblink. Since GPs are the first gatekeepers that anyone with the symptoms has to go through, she has gone from being a hands-on doctor to one who does the vast bulk of her work now either on the phone or over video.

Cormican sees fewer patients in person in her surgery – and those she does, she sees in strictly controlled circumstances. She only finished her training two years ago and already it feels like she’s having to look at the job from a completely different angle.

“As a GP, one of the cornerstones of the job is having contact with patients, getting to know them, seeing them face-to-face so you can assess them. Now, overnight, we have literally had to change the way we practice. For the safety of the patients and for the safety of ourselves as well.

“We’re mainly doing phone consults now – that would take up a good chunk of the day. And in our practice, we have started video calls as well. That’s really good because once you can see each other face-to-face it’s a bit nicer.

“Most practices now, if they’re seeing patients, they would see them together in clusters and wear the protective gear when they come in. So it’s strange for the patient when they come into the room and they mightn’t have a cough or a cold or anything to do with all that’s going on and yet you’re wearing a mask when they come in to sit in front of you. So that’s a headspace change for everybody and it came in practically overnight.

Big change

“That’s the way it’s gone nationwide. You’d be in a few different WhatsApp groups and that’s the way the majority are practising now. It’s a big change alright but it’s for the best. You don’t want patients gathering in the waiting room, you don’t want the potential of them getting infected. And vice-versa, you don’t want your staff running the risk of getting infected either.

“The last thing you would want is for one of your staff to get infected and the practice would have to close for a good chunk of time. You want patients to be reassured. Everyday, we’re introducing new things and coming up with new ways of doing things. It’s a very dynamic set-up. It’s not set in stone.

“At the moment, the patients are stable in terms of symptoms but with this surge coming, people are expecting to become a lot sicker. So we will have to change our practice again as we go along. It’s such a strange time.”

Processing it all is no gimme. Cormican is 31 and has been playing intercounty for Galway for over a decade. She has represented her county in football and camogie, senior and intermediate. Sport was there all the way through her training, something for her to aim at through the long days of study and slog. Wrapping her head around the fact that it has been zapped, ceased to be, just like that, has taken a bit of getting used to.

“You go from being obsessed with camogie, from it being the one thing in your life that everything else revolves around, from making sure you get out of work in time, eating right, sleeping right, from everything being focused on you being ready to train and to play and to perform, you go from that to with a flick of a switch, it’s all gone. It’s very strange.

“But this is so much more important. Players think sport is life or death, you’re so down on yourself if you play bad or if you have a bad training session, you don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone or come out of the house even. But you can’t talk about sport being life or death now, not when this is happening.

“I really think a lot of people will have a whole new perspective on sport when they go back to it. There will be a greater realisation that we’re absolutely privileged to be able to play it. Just having that company, just having somebody give you a dig or knock you on your backside, that’s nearly what we will love the most when we get back to it. It feels very strange not to have camogie to play at the minute but I think we will have such a greater appreciation for it and for each other when it happens.”

In fact, her appreciation for it has grown even just in the last week. At the beginning of the crisis, she told herself she was too busy to make time for it. Gradually though, she saw the folly in that too. As the surge comes, the hours will get longer, the patients sicker and more numerous, the me-time squeezed to nothing. Best make the best of now.

“Actually, I have been getting out, just hitting a ball off a wall, just to get away from it all,” she says. “That took me a while to come around to though because initially everything was research and looking up papers, studying all the current guidelines and making sure I was up to scratch on everything I needed to be. You’re just consumed by it. You do find that you’re nearly more anxious because of it. Not just healthcare workers, I presume everyone is like that, just stuck in the middle of it looking for information. You can only take so much of it.

“So the last few days, I have definitely been making sure I put the phone away a good bit and getting out in the fresh air with the hurl and the ball. It definitely does distract you and lets you forget about it for a while. It’s good, you can do it, get out for a while, puck a ball around and get away from it. I’m conscious too that I may not have time in a couple of weeks to do that. You just don’t know.

Feel anxious

“It’s very normal for everyone to have worries and to feel anxious. This is a time when there’s so much uncertainty and so much worry. People shouldn’t feel bad about feeling that way. But it’s so important too to get out and clear the head. Exercise is always a great cure for that, even when there’s no pandemic to worry about.”

People do worry. And are worried. Life has never been like this so there’s nothing to compare it to and therefore no example from which to take solace. Cormican is a health professional, a cohort that accounts for 25 per cent of confirmed cases so far. She’s also the furthest thing you can imagine from a top-of-the-head bluffer. So when she’s asked if she finds the situation more or less unnerving than the general populace, it behoves us all to listen to her.

“Oh, maybe a bit more unnerving, I suppose,” she says.

You're just hoping and hoping that people do what's necessary and that it doesn't get that bad

“When you see what’s going on and you just know the impact it can have. It’s the worry that if people don’t follow the measures, what may be ahead of us. That’s what the worry is. All the boring stuff that you’ve heard a hundred times about washing your hands and social distancing, that’s the only weapon we have.

“You’re just hoping and hoping that people do what’s necessary and that it doesn’t get that bad. You’re looking at Italy and they’re weeks ahead of us and you just want everybody to do everything they can to prevent us going down that road. It’s horrible what’s going on out there. The health system is getting overrun and it can’t cope. We can avoid that but it will take a huge effort from everyone.”

True. But in the heave, some pull harder on the rope than others. The least we can do is back them up.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times