Meet the Member: Dr Michael Doherty
11 February, 2021
Our 'Meet the member' series introduces you to members across Northern Ireland, to learn more about their professional lives and personal histories.
A homecoming of sorts
The College’s relocation to the Innovation Factory on Belfast’s Springfield Road has a significance for Dr Michael Doherty. The building overlooks Forth Parade, where Michael spent many of his formative years. It is, for the current vice-chair of RCPsych NI, a sentimental moment, and a homecoming of sorts after a wide and distinguished career in psychiatry.
Those of us who know Michael, will testify to his warm personality and his undoubted wisdom. He has enjoyed an illustrious career which has seen him enjoy many roles, including doctor, teacher, medical manager and clinical director. With RCPsych NI now seeking expressions of interest for the role of vice-chair, we felt it timely and appropriate to have a closer look at the life, work and times of the affable Dr Doherty.
(Pictured above, Former Chair Professor Gerry Lynch, pictured in 2018 with North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, Policy Lead Peter Trimble and Vice-Chair Michael Doherty. )
Michael was born in Belfast in July 1955, the oldest boy in a family of two boys and two girls. Michael’s father, Michael Sn., who had been born in Fintona, County Tyrone, in 1901 moved to Belfast in 1912, where he worked as a shop manager on the Falls Road. His mother, Evelyn, hailed from Bundoran, Co. Donegal, and fond memories of visiting the seaside resort in his youth have stayed with him as he now owns a property on the outskirts of the town.
It was through the many stories and reminisces of his father that Michael acquired a life-long love of history. However, at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School, he would study the sciences to A’ Level standard and commenced medical school at Queen’s University in 1973. It was while he was working in a summer job in Dublin that word came through in August that he had been accepted into medical school.
“I really didn’t know what to expect at Queen’s and it just seemed to be a natural progression from school to university. Maybe, I was too young to appreciate what a life changing experience medical school would be.”
Belfast by then was enduring the worst of the Troubles. The Springfield Road had been at the epicentre of the outbreak of violence in 1969, and the situation had worsened by 1973. The prospect of Michael – as for many – travelling daily across Belfast was fraught with danger. However, a place in the Elms halls of residence was secured through a rather unlikely channel. As Michael recalled, “It was very dangerous period and it would have been extremely unsafe for me to try and get to and from Queen’s every day. At that time, the army was based permanently in Forth Parade just beside our house, and it was on the recommendation of an army officer that I was given a place in the halls of residence and that helped me settle in at the university.”
Michael blended with ease into Queen’s and soon immersed himself in his studies. In 1979, he commenced his career as a houseman in the old City Hospital, specialising in general medicine and cardiology.
“I was based and living within the old City Hospital, so we were cocooned within the site to most of what was going on outside on the streets. I even recall that the hospital had its own fully stocked bar, if refreshments were ever needed by off-duty staff – not that I would know much about that!” added Michael.
“Psychiatry, though, was something that I had never really considered, as I thought that my future would be in general medicine,” he recalled. “That changed, however, when a close acquaintance who was working in mental health at the time suggested that I would make a good psychiatrist and I her took her advice. “
That ‘acquaintance’ was a nurse by the name of Fiona Martin and, such was Michael’s respect for Fiona, that they have been happily married for many decades.
Fiona went on to enjoy a distinguished career in both nursing and teaching, notably helping to develop the Thorn Initiative, a course devised for mental health nurses providing care for those suffering from serious mental illness.
After studying psychiatry at Purdysburn, Michael took up a consultant role within Windsor House at the City Hospital site, where he would spend most of his career. Being so close to Queen’s University meant that he would treat students on a regular basis and improving student mental health provision has been a theme of Michael’s College and clinical work.
Indeed, Michael was delighted when he was invited in 2012 to explore the need for a dedicated service at the Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya. Several visits to the African country were undertaken to assist in the project and, for Michael, it was a development that brought him great satisfaction.
“I undertook that work in a personal capacity and it was an honour to be invited over by the university,” said Michael. “For me, it was a lifelong wish to visit Africa and help develop the service.”
Being based at Windsor House also provided Michael with an opportunity to teach at a clinical level at Queen’s and inspire a new of generation of psychiatrists. This has been another rewarding aspect of his career and he is indebted to many colleagues.
“I really enjoyed teaching and it gives me immense pride when I see students and trainees doctors who I have taught coming to prominence and playing a leading role in the College and the profession.”
“I worked with some amazing people and I think of some of the names, such as, Eithne O’ Gorman, Artie Kerr, Bill Norris, Noel Scott, Sean Egan, Frank Brown, Roy McClelland and Steve Cooper, and I feel honoured to have learned so much from them.”
Michael has been involved in College work for the best part of 35 years. In 2017, he was elected to the position of vice-chair, succeeding Dr Maria O’ Kane. “I was lucky enough to be able to retire at an early age and that freed me up to develop my role within the College and other interests.”
“I have really enjoyed my time as vice-chair and playing a supporting role to Gerry Lynch and then Richard Wilson. I have been able to concentrate on the policy side and contribute to our evolving strategy. I really feel that we are in a strong position now to set the agenda for mental health locally and I would encourage experienced members to consider applying for the role.”
“To those commencing a career in psychiatry, I would advise them to become involved in the College, as it can be a very fulfilling way of complementing your clinical work - but it’s important always to remember that patients come first throughout your career.”
“Psychiatry is a very rewarding profession and wisdom is something that comes through experience and a strong peer group is essential in this regard. When I consider how psychiatry has changed since I began practicing, it is amazing how community services have improved over the years and the types of medicine available have been enhanced greatly.”
“Thankfully, the stigma previously associated with mental health has been challenged and people are more open about their problems. Basically, the illness remains the same, but we are in a better position to treat patients.”
Michael will remain in office until July 2021 when his successor will take up the role.
However, that will not the last we will hear of him. Dr Doherty is proof that life exists beyond retirement and his experience and knowledge is helping to drive forward the College’s agenda. His wise counsel and advice have helped shape that agenda and thankfully will continue to do so.