Professor Patrick Pullicino has been a doctor almost all of his adult life. He formally retired from the NHS five years ago when he turned 65, but continued to see patients for nearly four more years.
A widower for a decade or so, he finally stepped aside from medicine to seek ordination as a priest for the Archdiocese of Southwark and to serve as a hospital chaplain. But his break from medicine did not last long due to the swift global spread of Covid-19, which he contracted earlier this year “probably from the Underground” and which he experienced as a mild but prolonged illness.
As he recovered he “became uncomfortable sitting doing nothing in a flat with a fridge full of food”, and so he applied to re-join the NHS in response to the invitation from the Government for retired medical professionals to go back to work. Now 70, he has been assigned to the Nightingale Hospital in London, one of seven built virtually overnight specifically to treat Covid patients.
“This opportunity came up and I still had my GMC (General Medical Council) registration and I really thought that I had to do it,” he says. “I thought, how can you sit back and do nothing when you can help in some way or other?
Having already recovered from the illness made it a simpler choice, he says. “If I hadn’t had Covid it would have been a slightly more difficult decision but I would have done it anyway.
“The other thing is that if God tells you what He wants you to do, and if you get this feeling that you ought to do something, you are going to get protection at the same time. One comes with the other. I think you just have to go forward. You have to have some degree of spiritual courage at these times … not throwing everything to the wind, you still have to follow advice but at the same time I think one has to careful not to be cowed by the situation.”
Pullicino trained as a doctor in Malta, graduating with distinction in 1973, before specialising in neurology in London and New York.
He rose to become chairman of the Department of Neurology and Neurosciences at the New Jersey Medical School in 2001 before returning to the UK in 2005.
In 2012, he was among a small group of senior doctors who risked their livelihoods to blow the whistle on abuses carried out under the Liverpool Care Pathway, an end-of-life protocol subsequently abolished two years later.
Pullicino has always been a Catholic, just as he has nearly always been a doctor; yet he hesitates to consciously identify himself as a “Catholic doctor”.
Certainly, he was not attracted to medicine as a vocation in the religious sense and even today he is loath to make any pronouncements about what qualities might produce “a good Catholic doctor”.
Nevertheless, he has often taken a stand over ethical principles. As he matured, Pullicino found “instinctively” that he did not agree with decisions he was seeing made in the care of patients deemed to be reaching the end of their lives. His long struggle against withdrawal of fluids from sick and elderly patients last year saw his involvement in DehydrationLifeline.org, an online resource for families who fear that their relatives are being denied fluids.
Most recently, he spoke out against Department of Health guidance which instructed the NHS to send elderly patients to care homes even if they were showing symptoms of the coronavirus. To him, the policy helps to explain why the 4,000-bed Nightingale Hospital is standing practically empty while the death rate in care homes is high and climbing.
“Fill the Nightingale with elderly people,” he said in comments reported in the Daily Mail. “There are enough elderly people to fill the Nightingale within 48 hours. Get the elderly out of nursing homes and put them in the Nightingale. There is plenty of room, there are plenty of people who are sick. Just look after them. What’s the idea of an age cut-off? It’s wrong.”
How, then, has his religion changed his work? “It is not always easy to mix faith and medicine,” Pullicino says. “But what was really important to me was to be able draw clear ethical lines and say, ‘I would do this and I would not do that’.” Catholicism was part of what made the moral dimension clear.
“A lot of people who did not have that background probably did not have that help. It definitely helped me and I am thankful for that. As time went by, more abuses started to happen and it helped me understand what was right to do and what was not right to do.”
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