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'We had to get up at 4am and travel nearly four hours so Mum could get chemo'

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said the response from the government in Letterkenny is “pathetic”.

MUM FOUND A lump and was diagnosed with cancer in November 2016. She was given an appointment to meet her oncology team in Letterkenny Hospital where she was told that she would need chemotherapy. She was also told she wouldn’t be able to get it in the hospital and would have to travel to Galway, nearly four hours away.

These are the words of a concerned son, who wishes to remain anonymous, who says he is at his wits’ end trying to help his sick mother.

Due to a staff vacancy of a permanent medical oncologist in Letterkenny University Hospital (LUH), all patients newly referred to the oncology clinic are now being referred to Galway University Hospital (UHG).

“Mum is a complicated case. As well as having cancer, she suffered a stroke last year. She also has a heart condition. She’s not an elderly woman, by any means, but she has a lot to deal with,” her son explained to TheJournal.ie.

The nurse said she would push for Mum to get treatment in Letterkenny, due to her complications, but in the end she was referred to Galway for her treatment – a journey of over three and a half hours – there and back.

shutterstock_154660817 Source: Shutterstock/Blue Planet Earth

It’s a very arduous journey for her. She has to be in Galway for her 8am appointment which means we have to leave at around 4am in the morning if we want to make it down there. She also has to present to Letterkenny Hospital the day before her chemo for her blood work, so it’s basically three days we spend altogether.

Due to her many ailments, the doctor in Galway said he would prefer for her to be treated in Donegal, rather than making the long journey.

Long journey to Galway

The doctor said he could see the travelling was taking its toll and said he would try to make a case for her to be treated in Letterkenny. However, he told the family that it was really nothing to do with him and explained she was not being treated in Donegal as there was not enough staff or capacity to treat her in her home county.

Her son said their situation could be helped if there was accommodation available to them in Galway.

“The chemo takes it out of her, but there is no accommodation for patients to stay overnight. The nurse said she wished she could help us, but explained that there is a strict policy that it is only for radiotherapy patients.

“We now have to pay for a B&B when we travel to Galway. We have to pay for a room to stay the night before, so we don’t have to drive through the night, and we usually stay that night also as the chemo is a lot for her to take. That’s two nights we have to pay for every two weeks for her treatment. It’s a huge financial impact for us,” said the son.

There are dozens more like us. We were told that a locum is due to be hired some time in March, but there is no guarantee things will change as there is going to be a huge backlog of patients.
“The way the patients are being treated is just unethical – these poor people are at their wit’s end.”

Over 50 patients forced to travel

The case in Letterkenny has recently been raised by Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty. He claims more than 50 patients from Donegal are being forced to travel to Galway for treatment.

He told the Dáil last week that he was disgusted Health Minister Simon Harris was not present when he raised the issue in the chamber.

Minister of State for Communities and the National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne, who was taking questions on behalf of the minister, apologised to the deputy for Harris’ absence.

“The minister acknowledges the concerns of patients and the inconvenience associated with having to travel for chemotherapy treatment. However, patients continue to receive quality treatment and the HSE has assured him that every effort is being made to resume normal service at Letterkenny University Hospital at the earliest possible date,” she added.

In relation to services more generally at Letterkenny University Hospital, my colleague, the Minister for Health, is aware of the need to provide services that are accessible to patients in Donegal and to minimise patient travel time where possible. There has been significant capital investment in Letterkenny Hospital in recent years.

Doherty replied, “There is no need for the Minister of State to apologise to me. I am not a person requiring chemotherapy who has to travel for 45 minutes to Letterkenny General Hospital only to find that it is closed for my treatment and I have another four hours journey ahead”.

The people who deserve the apology are the cancer patients of Donegal who have been denied a chemotherapy service in recent weeks.
“The response I got is pathetic… Serious questions must be asked. I understand there is a gap that needs to be filled when people resign, but the HSE has told me it can fill three out of the six weeks between now and 6 March until the new locum is appointed. In that case, why have patients been denied chemotherapy services in Letterkenny General Hospital since Christmas?
I hope the Minister of State will never have to find out what it is like for those patients and their families who have recounted to me the experience of what the journey was like for them.
“Their appointments are at 8 o’clock in the morning and they must do a five-hour journey. The response from the government is pathetic. I expect the minister to take a hands-on approach to ensure cancer patients are no longer treated in this way in the future.”

Byrne said it is envisaged that a locum will be appointed on 6 March, adding:

I know that is probably not of any satisfaction to those who have to travel. I apologise, through the Chair, for the fact the Minister, Deputy Harris, was unable to be present.

New locum to begin work 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, Letterkenny University Hospital General Manager, Seán Byrne confirmed that normal medical oncology service at LUH will resume when a new locum starts work in early March.

He explained that Letterkenny Hospital had two Consultant Medical Oncologist posts. One of these posts had been filled by a locum, pending the appointment of a permanent oncologist. This locum recently resigned.

“In this context it is not clinically appropriate to start new patients on chemotherapy regimes at LUH when we do not have the consultant medical cover to ensure it can be provided without interruption to the regime,” said the hospital manager.

In the interests of patient safety we have, therefore, made arrangements with our Consultant Medical Oncologist colleagues in Saolta University Health Care Group and more than 50 new referrals to UHG have been received since this contingency arrangement was put in place.

“There is a separate process underway for the recruitment of a consultant into the second substantive post described above and this post was advertised in national and international media at the beginning of December,” he said.

“The Oncology Clinical Team and Hospital management are very aware of the additional stress associated with cancer patients having to travel for chemotherapy treatment. However, in the interim before the new locum starting, the priority must be to ensure that patients are provided with a safe service which has sufficient consultant cover to guarantee uninterrupted delivery of chemotherapy.”

The HSE said that of the clinics available to patients at UHG, one starts at 9am, adding that the vast majority of the clinics are in the afternoon.

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