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A legend and a life-saver

A BBC One NI documentary tonight sees Jack Kyle, one of Ireland’s most famous rugby players, return to Zambia where he played a very different role, as a surgeon. Thomas Kane reports on an emotional trip

The Zambian town of Chingola is a world away from Lansdowne Road or Ravenhill. But just as in those famous stadia, they look upon Jack Kyle as a legend there.

Not for his exploits as a rugby player, but because of the thousands of lives he saved while working as a surgeon. Chingola is a mining town in the north of the country. The copper industry dominates the area and it is the mining company who run most of the facilities in the town.

The road to the hospital is a challenging journey. Rarely travelling at more than 15 miles per hour, every few feet brings another pothole, the kind of obstruction that requires precision driving and a fair bit of luck. Thankfully, our driver Charles is well used to the terrain. We were then faced with heavily armoured gates more akin to a prison than a hospital. Once through them, there are smiles and hugs awaiting. The prodigal son has returned. The 84-year-old man, born and raised in north Belfast, makes his way out of Charles’ van to a welcome party who can’t wait to see him. Jack was back!

The hospital is very basic. It’s how I imagine hospitals in Ireland looked 30 or 40 years ago: there are no frills, no hi-tech equipment, just the bare minimum.

As Jack makes his way through the entrance, the smile on his face says it all, he was enjoying his walk down memory lane.

Everyone greets him with a different story or experience that the two shared.

Jack remembers them all, and immediately responds with a different tale.

The welcoming committee all ask about Jack’s health, while he is more interested to hear of recent improvements in facilities, or staff training at the place he worked for over three decades.

Those who have only recently started working in the hospital introduce themselves, remarking on how much Jack’s name still pops up in conversation among patients, doctors and nurses around the town.

Even on his return, he is constantly asking about modern day treatments and about the standard of care. He may be retired, but he is still eager to learn.

Learning is something he had to do fast in Zambia. He was tested to the limit at the hospital, he jokingly says that he would often enter the theatre with a textbook in his back pocket, just in case he might need any help during the operation!

Nothing he studied at university could have prepared him for one particular patient. Doreen, required a finger amputation. With Doreen having been knocked out, Jack performed the surgery without any problems at a house in Chingola oh, I forgot to mention, Doreen was a chimpanzee!

When Jack first arrived here, he was the only surgeon in Chingola, and the next town.

He didn’t specialise in one particular area of medicine, it was simply a case that if he couldn’t perform the operation, nobody else could.

For 34-and-a-half years, Kyle was employed here, raising a family, and becoming a much-loved member of the community. However, that description of his life in Africa doesn’t even begin to tell his story.

Over 5,000 miles away from Northern Ireland, getting to Zambia wasn’t easy easy. We set off from Belfast to Heathrow, jumped on a ten-hour trip from London to the Zambian capital Lusaka, then an internal flight from Lusaka to Ndola and an hour-and-a-half journey by car to Chingola. For an 84-year-old, that is some trip!

But there was an excitement and enthusiasm in his eyes from the moment we met in Belfast. Africa is a huge part of his life, a part of his life that might not be as well known as rugby, but that is just as important to him.

It is very difficult to describe just how revered Jack is in Zambia. A modest man, everywhere we went, people stopped him. They were simply all in awe of the doctor who had treated most of them.

The compliments came from all facets of society; it didn’t matter if the person delivering it was a wealthy expatriate, or a struggling street seller who lived in a township.

While living here, Jack was detached from rugby, apart from the odd radio commentary via the World Service.

Many of his colleagues knew nothing about his rugby career. In Zambia, Kyle is a legendary physician, loved by all. The myth and legend of Jack Kyle the rugby player is a story which most people on this side of the world are more familiar with.

A stylish fly-half, Kyle was a star of the game half a century ago, winning a grand slam in 1948.

One journalist famously wrote after a game against France: “They seek him here, they seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. That paragon of pace and guile. That damned elusive Jackie Kyle.”

He was also a Lions legend and was the star of the 1950 tour to New Zealand. Long after his playing career ended, he was named Ireland’s greatest ever exponent of the oval ball game in 2002.

Many younger rugby fans will remember the image of Jack celebrating with captain Brian O’Driscoll, when Ireland won their first Grand Slam since that team of ‘48.

That picture adorned the front page of many newspapers and was seen as the passing of the baton between two iconic figures of the game.

During the making of this programme, I have spoken to rugby greats about Jack Kyle the rugby player. Each have referred to his abilities in the number 10 jersey, but they have also talked in glowing terms about Jack Kyle, the man.

Lions and Ireland legend Willie John McBride sums him up brilliantly. “We talk about gentleman, I could not sum that word up any better than saying — give me Jack Kyle.”

I agree.

Sitting with him on a balmy night in Chingola enjoying a glass of red wine has been one of my most enjoyable moments as a journalist. I could listen to him for hours.

His ability to recount stories is masterful. The tales are peppered with quotes from famous poets and playwrights, whether he is talking about rugby, or his life after sport.

You are left hanging on every word, amazed at his ability to remember names and mesmerized by a man who has enjoyed his life to the full.

I am in no doubt, Jack Kyle, is a cut above, a legend both as a player and as a man.

Season Ticket: A Cut Above on BBC One Northern Ireland, tonight,10.50pm

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