Halpin, ex-surgeon still moved by suffering
Wednesday January 15, 2003
David Halpin is one of those rare people willing to make a personal
sacrifice for what he believes in. But as a retired orthopaedic surgeon
in the west country, he makes an unlikely saviour for the one million
Palestinians living in Gaza.
On Friday, 62-year-old Halpin is due to put to sea on a 3,000-mile trip
to deliver supplies of food and medical equipment. What motivates a
former doctor to charter a Brixham trawler to make such a gruelling,
28-day journey to the Middle East?
Halpin, who was a consultant at Torbay hospital and the Princess
Elizabeth orthopaedic hospital in Exeter, says he has never been able
to stand by in the face of suffering. Over the years, he has "fought
like a tiger" for his patients, who have faced hospital closures, and
he was a vociferous opponent of the NHS internal market. More recently,
he has been a keen conservationist, winning prizes for his sensitive
treatment of woodland.
Born and brought up in Dorset, Halpin says his passion to help others
was ignited at age 13 when he discovered the teachings of Albert
Schweitzer, the doctor and philosopher who won the Nobel peace prize in
1953. Schweitzer made "reverence for all life" an elementary and
universal principle of ethics and devoted his life to providing
healthcare to people in Africa. It was this philosophy that inspired
Halpin, the elder of four children, to become a doctor. He recalls: "My
parents were shocked when I told them what I wanted to do. My father
was a small businessman. I think he was afraid it would cost a lot of
Halpin trained for six years at St Mary's medical school, west London,
qualifying in 1964. During this time, he was supported by his wife,
Susan, who worked as a nurse, and the couple adopted two children.
Various jobs followed, including spells teaching anatomy at King's
College, London, and working as a general surgeon in Bristol, before he
moved to the Princess Elizabeth in 1970 to specialise in orthopaedics.
"I wanted to train in orthopaedics as it was more hands-on than general
surgery," he says. "The hospital was excellent and a marvellous place
to train." After subsequently working in the US and in Cornwall, he was
appointed consultant at Torbay and the Princess Elizabeth - a post he
held until ill-health forced early retirement 10 years ago.
His love for the Princess Elizabeth would later lead him to battle
against its closure. First, though, he found he had a fight on his
hands with introduction of the internal market. Torbay hospital was one
of the first in the country to apply for trust status and he became a
vociferous, but lonely, opponent.
"I had seen evidence from America that administration costs would
double and I feared for our good relationship with GPs," he says. "I
went to meetings about the reforms, but I was told to sit down and keep
quiet." The hospital went on to become one of the first NHS trusts.
The struggle took its toll on Halpin's health and he took early
retirement, although he continued to work as a locum. He also came out
with all guns blazing when closure of the Princess Elizabeth was
announced. The site was to be sold for upmarket housing, with a new
orthopaedic centre built at the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital. "I
fought like a tiger to keep the hospital," says Halpin. "Once you
damage something, it's difficult to replace it. But health chiefs
pushed ahead and closed it on its 70th anniversary. They claimed it was
Disillusioned with the way the health service was being run, Halpin
performed his last operation two years ago and has since devoted his
efforts to conservation. His sensitive planting of 35 acres of woodland
has been recognised by judges at the Devon County Show, who also
awarded him a prize for the building of a linney - a two-storey barn.
Halpin has sponsored his £45,000 mercy mission personally,
but is appealing for support. "Money is no good in the bank when there
are people are suffering," he says. "Some people, unfortunately, will
spend £40,000 on a car. The truth is, I cannot sit back while
thousands of children go hungry on the Gaza strip. If I can do a little
to ease their pain, and highlight the human rights abuses, then my trip
will be a success."
He plans to spend three or four days in Gaza, fact-finding and
distributing aid. Advice has been taken from the Palestinians on what
they need most and stores - including butter and flour from small farm
networks in the west country - have been stockpiled at Brixham, Devon,
ready for loading on the boat, the Jacoba.
Halpin, who has asked the Foreign Office to facilitate the trawler's
docking at Ashdod, in Israel, says it will not carry any national flag
or religious symbol. The words Justice, Peace, and The Brotherhood of
Man will be emblazoned on the rigging - alongside Reverence for All
Living Creatures. There will be two other words: Shalom, Hebrew for
peace, and Salaam, the Arabic equivalent.
"This is symbolic as well as humanitarian," says Halpin. "We are going
there to show the gross depredation the Palestinians are suffering. In
these times, with war looming against Iraq, it's time to stand up and
be counted. Something has to be done now. It's a chance to make a
* To help with supplies or support for the mission, call 01364-661115