A retired Belfast GP with an incurable blood cancer will be setting his own health issues to one side by walking a stage of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in his Lisburn driveway before his birthday next week.
Dr Martin McMullan (57), who was diagnosed in 2012 and is currently living in what he calls his garden ‘shed’ to isolate himself from his family during the Covid-19 pandemic, is taking on the challenge to raise funds for Trocaire.
Forced to retire from his profession after his diagnosis, which he says will eventually kill him, he says he’s doing the walk “for people who are a lot less fortunate than me”.
Having started with a target of raising £500 — putting in £100 himself to boost the total he didn’t believe he would reach — he has now raised almost £10,000 for the charity despite not putting a foot forward in earnest until Thursday.
Well known in west and north Belfast, having worked at surgeries there, Dr McMullan had just turned 50 when he was diagnosed with myeloma.
A stem cell transplant in 2013 now has him in remission, but with his immune system depleted, he’s in the extremely high risk category to Covid-19 and is not expecting to rejoin his wife and children inside their Lisburn home until September.
“I am highly vulnerable and on the list to self-isolate and shelter from my own family,” the father of five said. “My wife Therese and three of my children are in the house and I’m living on my own in the annexe out the back. I joke I’m living in the shed, but it’s very comfortable. I’m very fortunate to have it over the garage.”
Having left work in practices on the Glen Road and Carrick Hill due to his extreme vulnerability to infection, he found a new lease of life with St John’s Rambling Retirees Walking Club.
He has been part of a group which is walking the route which starts in the French village of St Jean-Pied-de-Port before moving into Spain, with the latest leg of the pilgrimage due to take place next year.
Plans to walk the ‘Irish Camino’ in Boyne Valley this summer have had to be shelved, but it was while talking to his family and enjoying a glass of Spanish Rioja wine he decided to complete the next stage of his Camino journey in his driveway.
“It was a throwaway comment on a Zoom call when I said that instead of getting me a present for my birthday, I might do the next stage of the Camino on my driveway and they could sponsor me.”
On Thursday, he will start his 120km trek. Having plotted the route, he will only rest when he completes the distances between virtual villages.
“I measured walking up and down from the garage to the gates and back again and five times is a mile. I’m doing the stage from Logrono to Burgos and plan to do 30km a day,” he said. “I know the scenery might be a little different, and probably repetitive, but I want to make this as close as possible to the real thing. If it rains, it rains, I’ll just keep on walking.
“If I was doing the real thing I would be able to take a rest in a cafe and have coffee and tapas so Therese has promised to run a cafe at every stop and to serve Spanish food if she can,” he joked. “That might tempt some of the family to join me on a few sections, though always staying six metres away from me.”
He sets of from ‘Logrono’ on Thursday and will arrive at ‘Burgos’ next Tuesday.
“I was feeling pretty fatigued and unwell during the chemotherapy,” Dr McMullan admitted, “but my energy levels are great right now.
“And I’ll be getting off lightly as there are no hills to go up over the 120km distance. Some have tried to tell me I’ll have to go up and down the stairs a few times to make up for that.
“But there’s no backing out now. I’ll rest up for the next couple of days then I’m ready to go.
“I’ll put my feet up on my birthday,” he said, “maybe with another glass of Rioja to celebrate.”
To support Dr McMullan, visit justgiving.com/fundraising/martin-mcmullan2