Cancer protesters claim future of MGH is under threat

By Toni Bourke

Hundreds of protesters who attended the official launch of BreastCheck at Mayo General Hospital yesterday (Thursday) to voice their opposition to the transferral of breast cancer diagnostic and surgical services to Galway. Photo: Keith Heneghan/Phocus.

The future of Mayo General Hospital could be under threat now that confirmation has been given that breast cancer diagnostic and surgical services are to be axed at the end of this year. Fears are mounting that this is just the start of the stripping down of health services in Mayo with colorectol services due to cease in two year’s time.

Hundreds of protesters booed and jeered Health Minister Mary Harney who snubbed the Mayo public at the official opening of the mobile BreastCheck unit in Castlebar yesterday (Thursday) leaving Deputy Beverley Flynn to take the rap.

They were protesting in a last ditch effort to save the cancer services which consultants and doctors say are top class, but to no avail.

The news from the Government was every Mayo citizen’s worst fear: the services will cease to exist from the end of this year. “Harney out,” “cancer services must stay,” and “Galway too far away” were the chants emanating from the large crowd who carried placards and banners in an emotional effort to deliver their message to the PD Minister.

Protesters descended on Deputy Beverley Flynn to vent their terror and anger once the Minister had made her hasty departure without addressing the crowd.

One group of people the minister did meet with were the seven cancer survivors, headed by Mary McGreal, who initiated this campaign last October. The minister didn’t tell the women the game was up. She listened to their stories, they reiterated that no clinician or general practitioiner wanted to lose the services and Minister Harney took their views on board, Ms McGreal told the Mayo Advertiser. During the hour long meeting they impressed on the minister that her figure of 30 new breast cancer cases in Mayo a year was a huge underestimation of the true figure which stands at 80 new cases. Ms McGreal said as cancer survivors the seven women has done all they can at this point in time and they have now handed the campaign back to Deps Dara Calleary and Beverley Flynn who have nobody standing in their way with the clinicians, GPs and hospital manager all stating their positions this week.

However, Minister Harney earlier yesterday told the local radio that the service would be moved to Galway at the end of this year and the fear now is that this is only the beginning of the stripping of services from Mayo General Hospital.

Hospital staff, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said no top health practitioners will want to come to Mayo General now that they see cancer services being axed. One top surgeon who refused posts in Dublin and Galway in favour of a position in Castlebar has already changed his mind and staff believe this is only the beginning of the end for Mayo General Hospital.

Cottage hospital

Lahardane GP Dr Paul Nolan challenged Dep Flynn to become a hero and vote against the Government on this issue. He said cancer services are being removed this year, colorectal services in two years’ time and this is only the beginning, he said, adding that Mayo General will become a “cottage hospital”.

He said Mr Kevin Barry is dealing with 80 new cases of breast cancer a year, double the number dealt with by his consultant colleagues in Galway because Mr Barry is totally devoted to his job and is probably one of the best in the business.

“We have a vastly superior service in Mayo than in Galway. The service they will give us in Galway will be dreadful. What’s worse is we can see the colorectal services going down the same road. Two years later Mr Waldron will be gone too. Then we’ll have a Mickey Mouse, trivial, cottage hospital and nothing else,” he told reporters at yesterday’s protest.

In response to an angry mob of protesters Dep Flynn denied that she had at any stage run away from the issue or distorted the facts. However, she did confirm she would vote with the Government on this issue to maintain her “clout” with the Government. “The reason is I am a far more effective voice, even if I am unsuccessful, acting from within government than acting from outside. What clout do you think I would have next week if I voted against the Government and ye coming to me to effect change?” she asked one vocal woman.

Fine Gael Dep Michael Ring put it to Dep Flynn that she was elected as an independent by the people of Mayo and must vote with the people on this issue.

The whole breast cancer issue has this week seen Mayo general practitioners and consultants being dragged into the public sphere to state their positions in an effort to clear up conflicting reports.

Mr Barry, who said he did not want to issue a statement but was dragged into the debate, said he supports the concept of “centres of excellence” when properly developed with proven better outcomes. However, he added that he and his consultant colleagues have for the last eight years successfully operated a satellite service according to an agreement with the Department of Health and with full clinical support from University Hospital Galway. “I am confident, therefore, that the clinical outcomes of every patient treated in our unit stand up toscrutiny.”

Mayo general practitioners have also pledged their support to the current standards and services practised at Mayo General. They have recommended to Minister Harney and Professor Tom Keane that the breast care services at Mayo General Hospital should be retained as a fully functional satellite unit, appropriatelylinked to the services proposed at University Hospital Galway.

The Fine Gael party are to move a motion in the Dáil calling on the Government to provide funding for the provision of centres of excellence. The motion also calls on the Government to direct the HSE to retain existing cancer services at Mayo General Hospital for a period of five years until theGalway centre of excellence has been set up, resourced and is audited to a point where results can be proved to be better.