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- Brilliance in the face of great adversity-the life of Dr Jim Hanlon
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Jim Hanlon may not be a name that is familiar to you but to those who knew him, he was an amazing man – a great father, brilliant physiotherapist, an activist for those with disabilities and most of all an inspiration, as Jim was both blind and deaf.
Jim was born in Dublin in 1908. He attended Blackrock College in Dublin, and was a natural sportsman. He loved all sports and was a champion diver and two-handicap golfer. At this time the family lived in Terenure, where Jim’s cousin John Charles McQuaid, who would later become Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, was a frequent visitor.
While a boarder at Blackrock College, Jim developed rheumatic fever after getting caught in the rain. Luckily he recovered from this illness and went on to study in the Royal College of Surgeons in Stephen’s Green, where he qualified as an ear nose and throat specialist. He worked in the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital and St. Lawrence’s Hospital in Dublin, which was known as The Richmond and was later closed when Beaumont Hospital opened in 1987.
Jim continued to be a keen and accomplished golfer and while captain of the Grange Gold Club in Rathfarnham, went to the assistance of a man who became ill on the course. Covering the man with his own jacket, Jim was once again caught out in the rain and his earlier bout of rheumatic fever reoccurred. This time the consequences were worse, leaving him with damage to his heart valves.
Jim was to encounter an even bigger tragedy in 1950 when he developed a corneal infection after a patient coughed in his eye while being examined. The infection affected his vision and although he travelled to London for an operation, his vision could not be saved and the infection spread to his other eye due to sympathetic ophthalmia, leaving Jim blind in both eyes. A new antibiotic given to treat the infection had severe side effects which affected Jim’s hearing. By the time he returned from London, in his early 40s, Jim was blind and deaf.
He had four children aged from 10 down to six months at the time and his career as an ear nose and throat specialist was uncertain. Jim refused to give up hope of having a successful career though and was determined to become as independent as possible. He worked with a home teacher from NCBI to learn Braille and also became involved in craft making.
Jim was also able to use a typewriter and a Braille typewriter. An article in the Sunday Press from December 21st 1958 outlines how skilled he was with his hands. “When Dr. Hanlon came back to Dublin, with the help of teachers from the National Council for the Blind, he mastered Braille and touch-typing. An instructor from the Council came to give him a course in basket-making. In the first lesson he outlined the preliminary stages in making a basket. When he arrived to give the second lesson the basket was completed and varnished. The skilled, eager hands of the surgeon were hungry for more exacting work.”
Pursuing new options
A friend of Jim’s suggested that he study physiotherapy in London but most people thought it was impossible, including the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists in England. To Jim, nothing was impossible; especially if he hadn’t even given it a try. The Society eventually sent someone to Dublin to meet Jim so that they could explain why he couldn’t study physiotherapy. He left with a very different impression however and Jim was accepted onto the course.
So in 1951 Jim and his loyal secretary Josephine Kearney went to stay with his sister Marie in London. Josephine transcribed the lectures phonetically and Jim later typed them up in Braille. He was the first blind and deaf person in the world to qualify as a physiotherapist and went on to work at the Richmond Hospital back in Dublin.
Even before he lost his hearing, Jim had some familiarity with sign language, having spent some time at the Dominican College in Cabra, which had a school for deaf children attached to the school. By chance his wife Betty had also learned some sign language through a customer of her father’s, who was deaf. However, as Jim was also blind, they had to come up with an alternative system and Betty began tracing letters on Jim’s hand, which he was able to remember and use.
He remained interested in sport and continued to pursue golf. In fact, Jim was involved in reinvigorating the Holmpatrick Cup, a golf competition which still raises funds for NCBI to this day. At the meeting to reorganise the competition, Jim was quoted as saying “And apart from the Holmpatrick Cup competition, I would like nothing better than a competition for blind golfers.”
Jim went on to work as a physiotherapist in the Central Remedial Clinic in Goatstown, Dublin and became an important fundraiser and advocate for the organisation, which at the time catered for a lot of people with polio in Ireland. He and his wife Betty travelled to America with Lady Valerie Goulding, founder of the CRC, to raise funds for the organisation. They even appeared on the Ed Sullivan television show, with funds flooding in.
While in America he met Helen Keller, who was also blind and deaf and had developed an intricate system of communicating by tracing letters on the palm of the hand. The two became friends and kept in touch afterwards.
Helen told Jim she believed it was worse for him, having seen and heard the beauty of the world and taken part in conversations, whereas Helen had lost her sight and hearing when she was only 19 months old and so knew no different. “You make me feel humble. You know what you have missed in life and have surmounted it. I have never known, therefore it was easier for me.” Helen told Jim.
In 1960, at the age of 52, Jim travelled to Lourdes, as he had done many times before with his wife, but this time he was very ill. He died in the Asile Hospital on the grounds of the Lourdes Shrine and was buried in the Irish plot in Lourdes. His death was announced on French radio and television as an example of a man of great courage – a hero for all.
A son’s perspective
Jim’s son John, also a doctor, based in Dublin, tells us more about his Dad in his own words.
Dad was a very positive courageous man who greatly influenced everyone, who crossed his path, with a ready smile and encouragement. A real family man, a very religious man with a love for the world and everyone. People flocked to him for his wonderful friendship and charisma. His life story was once in the Readers’ Digest as an example of courage and faith. Many people with similar tragedies wrote to him from all over the world. Dad wrote back such beautiful letters or encouragement and hope. He always emphasised God’s love for all and to keep positive at all times.
Dad learned how to make golf clubs from rough bits of wood as a hobby. His clubs all had ‘The Doc’s’ stamped on them. As young children we all had our cut-down sized clubs and he remained a keen golfer himself. He used to go down to Portmarnock and Donabate while on holiday and even completed 9 holes in 56 shots, with me telling him the direction and possible distance. He had a golf net erected in the back garden, where he practised and standing behind us, would instruct us on the right way to swing the clubs with perfect rhythm.
He loved sports of all types and waited in anticipation for us to tell him the results of rugby, cricket and golf, which we gladly read to him on the palm of his hand from the newspaper — apart from the regular magazines he received in Braille.
When they travelled to Lourdes and Dad spent time alone in the grotto, Mum would ask him if he was praying for a cure. His reply would be “not at all, just praying for my pals”.
We all need heroes and special people to inspire and guide us through life. Dad was mine and I hope many generations in the future will also be inspired by courageous people like Jim Hanlon to keep us positive, cheerful and smiling like him. His motto was “Give out positivity and you will be rewarded 100-fold”.