Following the recent passing of our President, Professor Gerald Tomkin RIP, we remember the huge impact he made in terms of his selfless commitment to Diabetes Ireland and to the diabetes community in his efforts to improve the lives of people with diabetes and their families over many years.
In 1975, Professor Tomkin embarked on what was to become a life-long involvement with Diabetes Ireland. At that time, after returning from working abroad, there was very little diabetes expertise in the country. Endocrinology was developing as a specialist field in the UK, but not in Ireland, and he had to work hard to specialise in the area of endocrinology.
Professor Tomkin saw a need for Diabetes Ireland to become a strong voice in advocating for people with diabetes and growing the charity so it would be more supportive to people living with diabetes. He was also very much aware of the increasing prevalence of Type 2 diabetes and the huge impact it would have on the health service and the importance of promoting a healthy lifestyle for all the family, not just people living with diabetes.
Through his diabetes clinic in the Adelaide Hospital, and then Tallaght Hospital, he identified a number of his patients who he felt had the necessary business acumen to bring his vision to fruition and together, as Chairperson, with the help of many branch volunteers set about growing the charity to take on these challenges.
He also felt that more public recognition was needed for Type 1 diabetes so that it would not be used as a barrier to high-level attainment in school, playing sports or achieving one’s life dreams. In the 1990s, along with Professor Chris Thompson, they launched the 4 Peaks Challenge which for the first time ever attracted RTE interest and huge public interest and awareness of Type 1 diabetes.
Twenty-five years on, it was poignant that one of the last Diabetes Ireland events Professor Tomkin attended was the 4 Peaks Challenge Reunion in September 2022. He was delighted to attend the reunion in Westport and thoroughly enjoyed meeting with many of the original participants and was keen to be there despite his failing health.
In the late 1990s, Professor Tomkin was extremely disappointed that the National Cardiovascular Health Strategy, published by the Department of Health, barely mentioned diabetes and he set about, through Diabetes Ireland, to explore the need for a National Diabetes Strategy and working with our National Council, Dr John Barragry, Dr Anna Clarke and myself, he was instrumental in the setting up of the Diabetes Service Development Group which for the first time produced a report highlighting the deficits in diabetes care and the future resource requirements to develop an internationally recognised diabetes service in Ireland.
Eventually, this led to the HSE setting up the Diabetes Expert Advisory Group (now the Diabetes Clinical Programme), which was the first Chronic Disease Group set up by the HSE and this eventually led to the development of the Diabetic RetinaScreen programme and Diabetes Podiatry Service and improved Paediatric and Adult Diabetes services that we see today.
In the early 2000s, Professor Tomkin was at the forefront of highlighting the link between diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I remember one lunchtime he came into the office in Gardiner Street, and he dictated a letter to the Minister for Health, Micheál Martin TD highlighting this link and proposing that medication for cholesterol and blood pressure should be added freely to the Long-Term Illness booklet for people with diabetes. After a few weeks, we were both astonished to receive a reply from the minister agreeing with him and shortly after, and to this day, people with diabetes continue to get these medicines free of charge with their diabetes medication.
In those days, before social media, we had to travel around the country to attend many information meetings organised by our volunteer branches. Professor Tomkin never wanted to refuse an invitation and he travelled the length and breadth of the country, many times leaving his clinic late afternoon to speak at the meetings motivating our community with messages of positivity in the management of their diabetes. He had time for everyone at these meetings and travelled home late the same night so he would be in his clinic the next morning.
The move by Diabetes Ireland from 76 Lower Gardiner Street to purchasing its own home in Santry was one of the most cherished initiatives done by Diabetes Ireland as Professor Tomkin felt that it underlined the growth and expansion of the charity and enabled it to put down permanent roots for generations to come.
In recent years, Professor Tomkin continued to work closely with Diabetes Ireland as an active President and Board Member offering his support to staff and volunteers. He was a regular visitor to Santry always engaging with staff individually, making sure they were happy and content and was very giving of his time to everyone. In particular, he thoroughly enjoyed attending the 50-year “Living With Diabetes” medal ceremonies meeting many of his older patients and sharing their stories and memories of life with diabetes.
“Gerald has been an ever-present during my time in Diabetes Ireland. He was a visionary, our leader, our colleague, and our friend. We will remember him with fondness and never forget his infectious laughter, the inspirational person he was and his absolute dedication to the diabetes community.”