What will this mean for the average patient?

EuroTimes Contributing Editor explains how he made the transition from writing about football to covering ophthalmology meetings

Dermot McGrath

Posted: Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Former Republic of Ireland international soccer player Fran Stapleton(left) being interviewed by former Tallaght Echo reporter Dermot McGrath in 1991 outside The Burlington Hotel, Dublin, Ireland. Image courtesy of  Brian MacCormaic.


My son has never really forgiven me for becoming a medical journalist. My mistake was telling him that I used to be a sports writer, or perhaps more accurately “a fan with a typewriter”. Why on earth would anyone give up watching and writing about sport, he wondered. Telling his friends in school that his dad was a sports writer seemed vaguely cool, whereas telling them that he wrote about eye diseases was considerably less cool and definitely more “nerdy”.

Yet this nerd has no regrets about career choices, even if I understand my son’s point of view only too well. This year’s gathering in Lisbon marks the 35th Congress for the ESCRS and the 15th for yours truly.

It’s an adventure that began on a freezing February in Rome in 2003 when George W. Bush was in the White House and Ulf Stenevi was ESCRS President. I was ushered into a darkened hall at the ESCRS Winter Meeting where some live surgery was being relayed by video link from a nearby hospital. It was a cataract operation and I managed not to faint as the eye was prepped and the phaco needle worked its magic. “So, do you think you can write about this stuff?” my editor asked with a smile.

I managed to hold on to my lunch, sat in later on a few sessions and soon did my very first EuroTimes story. It was a short article on vitreous floaters, a persistent problem then as now for many patients. I went to interview the doctor concerned, hoping he wouldn’t realise how clueless I was.

When things got too technical, I hit him with my failsafe, fall-back question: “Okay, that’s fine, but what will this mean for the average patient?”. His answer to that very question provided the backbone for the article and the “average patient” question has served me well ever since – it often serves to scythe through the extraneous detail and marketing hype to get to the heart of the topic at hand.

A lot has changed in the 15 years since my initial floaters article. The ESCRS Congress has evolved from a principally European gathering to a truly global event. Some “hot” new technologies and surgical techniques have come and gone.

Femtosecond lasers are now a routine part of ocular surgery. The keratoplasty field seemed to gain a new acronym every few years (DALK, DMEK, DSAEK etc). Anti-VEGF drugs revolutionised the treatment of AMD. Cataract incisions continued to shrink as IOL materials and designs improved. Gene therapy and retinal implants are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Through all this evolution, watching and reporting from the sidelines on everything from A-constants to zonuloysis has been a fascinating and educational experience. It might not excite my son’s imagination, but the perennial game of science versus pathology played on that smallest of pitches, the human eye, compels its own respect.

The “players” – those ophthalmologists, surgeons and researchers that take to the field every day in an effort to save sight, improve vision, treat disease and improve the quality of life of their patients – deserve every support and recognition for their endeavours. After all, they’re playing on behalf of all of us, even if occasionally they still need to be asked that irksome question “so, what does this mean for the average patient?”

It’s a question I hope to keep asking for a good while longer.

  • Dermot McGrath is a Contributing Editor with EuroTimes