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David Halpin, ex-surgeon still moved by suffering

Linda Jackson
Wednesday January 15, 2003
The Guardian

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 money."

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 too isolated."

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 difference."

* To help with supplies or support for the mission, call 01364-661115 or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.