RIP Brendan Prendiville, the genius who rebuilt my face

Brendan Prendiville died last month. His death may have escaped you – it certainly might have done so for me too but for the vigilance of my Irish Times reading sister-in-law Margaret who spotted an acknowledgement to him in the paper and alerted Trish.

Of course the name means nothing to you, but to me he was a God. Yes, Prendiville played that role in my life for he was the surgeon back in the late 1950s who began to reconstruct my fire-damaged face. Where others saw only the impossible, he thought of the possibilities. He brought my parents hope and, bit by bit, operation after operation, he made me more human.

I didn’t see that, of course. All I knew was that my life was turned upside down by the frequent trips to Dublin. I grew to hate Dr Steevens hospital where I took up residence for many summers. I wrote about the terrible loneliness I endured back then because of the strict visiting hours and the difficulties for my parents in making the long trip to Dublin to see me.

Prendiville raided my thighs for skin grafts, finally separated the web-like fingers of my left hand, and did some phenomenal work on my face. To look at my face now compared to the pictures I saw in my file before those operations is astonishing. Unfortunately, I failed to appreciate Prendiville’s genius, and his extraordinary skills as a plastic surgeon. So absorbed was I back then in dealing with my trauma, and from my mid-teens onwards coming to terms with the psychological impact of my face, that I only saw Prendiville in negative terms.

I was 13 when Prendiville called a halt to the cycle of operations as I was beginning to grow quickly, and he deferred further work until I reached 21. As the years rolled by I became more withdrawn and delusional. I thought Prendiville would ‘fix’ my face when I reached adulthood with a miracle operation, solving all my problems. He would make me look normal and I would live a happy life. How I came to believe that is one of the most baffling episodes in my life.

I well remember the day I finally made an appointment to see Prendiville. My brother and I took the train up, but whatever thoughts I had entertained were dashed when he said there was not even a 50% chance of success, and his definition of what success meant was so limited I could feel the blood drain away. I left silently cursing him and determined to abandon all hope. This would be my face forever more.

Prendiville continued practising while I drifted along fearing that my future would be spent far removed from the company of women. I could see no salvation.

I talked to my mother about Prendiville earlier this, but she remembered little of him. My father was the one who dealt with him. As for me, well I was just the little boy. I don’t ever recall Prendiville having a doctor-patient relationship with me, but then I was a kid.

Prendiville’s role as the father figure of Irish plastic surgery is acknowledged in an article that explains his strong connection with Dr Steevens, but his legacy is one I would like to pay tribute to. He helped not just me, but many hundreds of children and adults who were burned, injured in road accidents, were born with serious facial trauma or cleft palates. He helped rebuild their faces and gave them a reason to hope for the future. Of course I was too immersed in my own self-pity to understand that.

My mother made an interesting observation to me this evening. She recalls vividly seeing the badly disfigured faces of children in Dr Steevens the first time she brought me there. “They were a lot worse than you, Tom,” she assured me. I know that now.

Prendiville was cremated last month, and my sympathies go to a wonderful surgeon and his family.

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