Flag protests cause heart service march to reschedule
FAMILIES of children with heart defects in Fermanagh are "hoping for the best but expecting the worst" ahead of Health Minister Edwin Poots' imminent announcement on the future of Northern Ireland's services.
Around 650 consultation responses on the future of children's heart surgery were submitted to the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) before the end of last year.
But Bellanaleck mum, Jennifer Keys, whose two-year-old son Alfie suffers from a complex heart condition, fears that these heartfelt pleas to maintain and enhance Belfast's current services could be overlooked in favour of 'unrealistic' statistics.
The Fermanagh mother, who has experienced first hand the trauma of having to travel across the water for life-saving treatment for her child, is urging the local community to get behind a demonstration march in Belfast next month.
Previously scheduled to take place at the end of last year, the march organised by the Children's Heartbeat Trust had to be cancelled due to the ongoing Union flag protests.
According to Jennifer, families are hoping that the rescheduled walk from the Royal Victoria Hospital to Belfast City Hall on February 2 can proceed this time as they believe it will be the last public chance to have their voices heard.
"We are still urging people to write to their MPs and MLAs to keep the pressure on," said Jennifer, "These are the last few weeks we have left to fight for these services. These babies are very vulnerable, they are not fit to be transferred across the water for treatment. We have to know we have done all we can to keep the services here."
And with the countdown to the Health Minister's announcement well and truly on, the Children's Heartbeat Trust has stepped up its campaign once again, stating that the consequences of losing children's cardiac services here would be far more wide-reaching than many anticipate.
"It's like dropping a pebble into a pond -- the ripples are immense," said Sarah Quinlan, the charity's Executive Officer.
"If we lose those anaesthetist skills in Belfast, there will be widespread consequences for the long-term. If a child with a congenital heart condition needs to have something as simple as a tooth out under general anaesthetic, doctors here won't have the skills to do that.
"And it's important to remember that it's not just young children who will be affected by this.
"There are more babies surviving into adulthood than ever before now because of the advances in medical care."
Ms Quinlan says the Heartbeat Trust believe stripping Belfast of its paediatric cardiac services could also threaten the future of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children itself.
"It would remove all paediatric medical independence from Northern Ireland. It would result in medical personnel becoming deskilled and demotivated."
Looking ahead to the Health Minister's announcement, Jennifer says she hopes that "common sense will prevail".
"Families are hoping for the best but expecting the worst," she said, "Particularly given the recent comments made by Dr Miriam McCarty who is sitting on the panel.
"She suggested people would be happy to travel anywhere for their children, but what she didn't say was that people wanted the services here.
"We hope that the volume of responses calling for Belfast's services to be maintained and enhanced will be listened to.
"If the panel are just going on unrealistic statistics, then it will not be maintained -- our figures here just don't stand up to the figures across the water -- but if they are really going to listen to the voice of the people here, then we should win."
The Children's Heartbeat march will take place in Belfast at 12 noon on February 2.
Buses from Enniskillen are being organised to bring participants to and from the demonstration.
For more information, telephone Jennifer Keys on 07745068571.
This article appeared in Impartial Reporter 24 Jan 13