An open letter to Ryan Tubridy from Donal O’Keeffe

Dear Ryan,

I watched the Late Late Show the other night and was struck by your genuine empathy for Megan Halvey-Ryan and her mother Sharon, as they recounted Megan’s suffering while she lives with scoliosis on a HSE waiting list. I was also struck by how angry you became, and by a throwaway remark you made, one on which I would sincerely urge you to follow up.

First of all, I hope all’s well. We don’t know each other, though we have friends in common. Jim Sheridan and Paddy Cullivan of the Late Late Show House Band might vouch for me, I hope, as – at least – not the worst.

I watch the Late Late Show most Friday nights and – like most viewers – I enjoy bits and I give out about the rest. That’s the Irish way. Anyway, I was watching last Friday as you spoke with Megan and her mother Sharon. They had featured in RTÉ Investigates’ superb “Living On The List”, surely one of the most powerful and uncomfortable pieces of television RTÉ has ever produced.

As you know, Megan is 13 now. In December 2014, a routine chest x-ray revealed a 20-22 degree curvature on Megan’s spine. Six months later, a follow-up x-ray showed the curve had doubled to almost 50 degrees. A further six months on and Megan was told she was on a list to go on a waiting list to see a consultant.

Looking at Megan’s x-ray from July 2016, the viewer could see her spine is now an ‘S’ shape and her ribcage is severely twisted and pressing on her vital organs.

“It means that I sometimes find it hard to breathe,” said Megan, a very young lady who is in daily pain. “I get out of breath really easily, and most of all, my tummy is so compressed that I just sometimes can’t even eat or I have to eat very small amounts.”

“I’m actually getting angry listening to this,” you replied, “because I see you as my daughter.”

Watching, I believed you. You struggled to form a coherent sentence and you had tears in your eyes and some of us at home felt tears of rage, too. There are almost 200 other kids in Ireland in the same painful limbo as Megan.

Then came a bit of good news.

“We got a date for Megan’s surgery today,” said Sharon, with some scepticism.

“She wasn’t on any list before today.

“You can call me cynical, but I think it speaks for itself that we got a phone-call with her surgery date a couple of hours before we appeared on the Late Late Show.”

You replied “You know, there’s a piece of me that’s so angry tonight, I’d nearly invite 199 other children on this show for the next 199 weeks… until (the HSE) get their act together and fix this.”

(It’s a horrible state of affairs when the only way a sick child can get desperately-needed treatment is to appear on television but welcome to Ireland. It was like this when we got here.)

There’s merit to your idea of having a child from the waiting list on the Late Late every night to shame the HSE and I think you should think about doing that. Or, perhaps, you might think of setting aside a full show to talk with kids on waiting lists. You could have them in studio, or in the case of those too ill to travel, in pre-recorded clips.

Now, you might argue that it would be logistically very difficult to get so many ill children into studio, and, well, okay, it’s not two hours of people who’ve never been west of Salthill singing Country’n’Irish medleys in American accents. Nor is it 200 drunken, howling twenty-somethings, as it was for the Valentine’s Special. I don’t even know what you or your production team were at, but – between ourselves – I Sky-Plussed that whole farrago for the next time the TV licence inspector comes knocking.

A Late Late Show featuring 200 or more kids in desperate need of life-changing, perhaps life-saving, operations might well be very hard to organise. It could also be the best and most important Late Late Show you will ever host.

Some might say RTÉ already did this show, and it was called “Living On The List”. Some might say the Late Late isn’t current affairs and they’d only be half-wrong. Every Irish citizen is born a Late Late Show expert and no two agree on what it actually is.

My best guess is the Late Late Show can be anything so long as it has heart, and if you hate one bit of it and love another bit, well, that’s the Late Late Show.

No, it’s not current affairs. It’s much more than that.

Anyway, look, I don’t think it’s possible to fake empathy, and I think that even your harshest critic would concede that you’re brilliant with kids.

Maybe that’s because you’re a dad yourself, or maybe it’s just because you check your own dignity at the door and you do your best to make sure kids come away from every interview feeling smarter and funnier and better about themselves.

With that in mind, I can think of nobody who’d do a better job of championing vulnerable kids living in the limbo of HSE waiting lists.

Public service broadcasting.

It would also be a fantastic Late Late Show.

I’m only trying to sell you back your own idea, Ryan.

Best wishes,