Legatus’ 2013 Ambassador of the Year models passion and patient perseverance . . .
This is a story of patients and a doctor’s care, of suffering, patience and perseverance, of a man with a passion — and a bit of impatience.
All of those qualities have driven 74-year-old Dr. Jimmy Sheehan throughout his stellar career. With his wife Rosemary’s help, Sheehan has accomplished much: an impressive career as an orthopedic surgeon in his native Ireland, the design of a world-renowned knee replacement system that bears his name, and the establishment of private hospitals.
From carpentry to surgery
After performing some 12,000 knee and hip replacements, Sheehan retired as a surgeon in 2003. He could have enjoyed a life of leisure in some southern clime, but that wouldn’t be Jimmy Sheehan. A member of Legatus’ Dublin Chapter, he no longer dons surgical scrubs or sits down with patients for consultations, but he is actively engaged as executive director of the Galway Clinic, one of the private hospitals he has founded in Ireland.
“Our obsession is the patient’s journey and looking at everything through the patient’s eyes as to what happens in their journey through life as a patient,” he said in an interview after returning from the Legatus Summit in Phoenix, Ariz., where he received Legatus’ Ambassador of the Year award. “If you use that as a guiding principle everything else follows.”
Born in Kerry in 1939, Sheehan was a boy who liked to take things apart and put them back together. “I always liked working with timber,” he said.
When his interests evolved from carpentry to medicine, he found bone surgery attractive “because of the reconstruction nature” of it. Though there had not been any physicians in his family, Sheehan and all four of his siblings went into medicine — most as doctors and one as a pharmacist.
Sheehan qualified in orthopedic surgery in 1966, when artificial hips were in the early stages of development. “We were able to do something for hips but not for knees,” he told Legatus magazine, “and that led me into the development of artificial knees.”
The young doctor got an apprenticeship with Sir John Charnley, the British inventor of the Charnley hip prosthesis. Sheehan realized he needed “much more in-depth exposure to engineering,” he said in a 2010 article in the Galway Advertiser. And so he returned to university to study bio-engineering. He earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and went on to establish a joint replacement unit at Dublin’s Cappagh Hospital. Surgeons began using the Sheehan Knee Replacement System in the late 1970s.
In the early 1980s, financial difficulties in Ireland led to massive cutbacks in health care, largely a government-run enterprise.
“We had very considerable waiting lists for artificial joint surgery, as well as other high-tech areas such as open heart surgery” due to health care rationing, Sheehan recalled. “As a practicing surgeon I was frustrated with the lack of facilities, and it was that frustration that led to the development of Blackrock.”
The Blackrock Clinic, near Dublin, would primarily serve people with private insurance — about 30% of the population. Sheehan and his brother Joe, also a physician, and several colleagues felt this move could help alleviate some of the pressure on the public health care system.
Blackrock “was a groundbreaking initiative in the Irish context,” said John Reid, a Dublin attorney who serves as president of Legatus’ Dublin Chapter. “There wouldn’t have been as much a history of private hospital care in Ireland. Most would have been public hospitals owned by the state. Jimmy and Rosemary faced a lot of opposition from political parties and various people trying to put obstacles in the way of their setting up the hospitals.”
Blackrock’s success caught the attention of a group of people in the medically underserved West of Ireland. Here too Sheehan had to overcome local political opposition. But the Galway Clinic finally opened in 2004. Dr. Phil Boyle, who treats fertility problems at the clinic, attributes the success in part to Sheehan being “a hugely capable negotiator” and a keen planner.
“He did it on time and within budget, which is unheard of for any kind of project of that magnitude in Ireland,” Boyle said. “He spent a long time making sure he got all the planning correct, and he knew exactly all the expenses that were involved and calculated it perfectly.”
Sheehan’s wife of 46 years, Rosemary, was involved in the planning. “Rosemary said to me recently that for the hospital in Galway, which cost about 100 million euros, they did all the finances on the kitchen table,” Reid explained. “That would be typical of them.”
Today, Galway employs about 500 people and has 146 beds. It offers orthopedic services and boasts state-of-the-art radiotherapy, open-heart surgery, PET/CT imaging, laser eye therapy and robotic prostate surgery facilities. According to The Irish Times, the clinic recently showed a 25% profit increase in 2011.
The Hermitage Clinic in West Dublin followed Galway. Sheehan created these hospitals to offer high-tech services and newly evolving services like interventional vascular surgery, but there also is a strong Catholic element to the clinics.
“One of my interests is that with the religious orders largely withdrawing from health care due to lack of numbers, I felt it was important that those of us in the laity took up that role, to propagate the culture of Catholic hospitals,” Sheehan said.
A prominent chapel is at the heart of the Galway Clinic, right off the main lobby, with wards surrounding it named for Our Lady of Knock, Blessed John Paul II, and Blessed Mother Teresa. A full-time chaplain provides spiritual care.
Sheehan ensures the “very strong Catholic ethos throughout the hospital, so that no procedures are undertaken that are in any way offensive to the Catholic belief.”
Boyle can attest to that. A student of Dr. Thomas Hilgers, the American doctor who developed Natural Procreative Technology, Boyle was the first doctor to bring NaPro technology to Europe. It’s an approach to treating infertility by using natural methods.
“When I went to apply for work in the Galway Clinic, he said that unless the fertility treatments I provided were in keeping with the Catholic ethos, he wasn’t interested in me working at the clinic at all,” Boyle said of his 2004 job interview with Sheehan.
Sheehan’s clinics do not offer in vitro fertilization or other such treatments. “People respect the fact that we make it absolutely clear that we are a Catholic hospital,” Sheehan said. “There’s no ambiguity about us. That’s an important aspect, that we’re happy to portray our faith.”
The clinics’ Catholic element is at the heart of Sheehan’s vocation as a health care provider, Reid said.
“His motivation is that every person is a child of God with a unique dignity,” he explained.
Sheehan told the Galway Advertiser in 2010: “The only reason we exist is patient care. Medicine is all about human relationships backed up by scientific fact. I regret to say that in medicine we’ve [become] somewhat oblivious to the needs of the patients and forgotten that the only reason we are there is for them.”
Legatus in Éire
A founding member of Legatus’ Dublin Chapter, Sheehan actively circulates among the members and guests at meetings. His membership and his reputation as a “leading businessman and health care person is great for the reputation of the chapter,” Reid said. “And because people know he’s also a good Christian, he encourages people to live out their faith.”
The root of Sheehan’s success, Reid said, is his deep prayer life. In spite of a busy schedule, he explained, Sheehan makes “time for prayer, reflection and contemplation — and time before the Blessed Sacrament every day.”
As for Jimmy and Rosemary, their Legatus membership has been “very beneficial to us both,” the doctor said. “I was involved in the first meeting in Ireland almost 10 years ago, by invitation, and attended because I felt it should be supported. I’ve only missed one meeting. It encourages you, and I think even the recent Summit meeting was inspiring. You come back refreshed and motivated to participate more actively in faith-related aspects.”
Asked if he has a favorite Scripture passage, Sheehan pointed to the lines from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans which are prominently displayed outside the chapel in the Galway Clinic: “Sickness brings patience. Patience brings perseverance. Perseverance brings hope” (Rom 5:3-4).
Sheehan has admittedly been impatient at the lack of care many of his countrymen suffered. But he has persevered, using both medical skills and business acumen to do something about it.
JOHN BURGER is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and editor.