Hundreds voice fears for future of stroke unit at Dundonald's Ulster Hospital
An emotional crowd of several hundred people turned out in Newtownards last night as a Department of Health consultation on stroke services went ahead at the second attempt.
Last week's scheduled meeting on the future of the service at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald had to be called off at the last minute as the room booked was too small to meet demand.
But the Queen's Hall in the Co Down town was packed to capacity as many who have needed the service for life-saving treatment turned out to voice their anger at the proposals.
The consultation has been extended until August 30 following last week's postponement, with the department proposing three hyper-acute stroke units at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Craigavon in the Southern Health Trust, and Altnagelvin in the Western Trust.
Another option, which suggests five units, would also include Antrim Area Hospital in the Northern Health Trust and the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, leaving services at the Ulster Hospital under threat.
Among those in the crowd was 30-year-old Robyn Atcheson, who lives in Newtownards and suffers from a very rare blood condition which leaves her at very high risk of a stroke.
"This is something I obviously have to think about. It's important to me, to my life and my future," she said.
"You can see a lot of people care about services remaining at Dundonald. I don't understand why they would seek to take services away."
Robyn's views were echoed in every corner of the room.
Pensioner Rita Edward from Bangor suffered a stroke two years ago and said it's likely she wouldn't be in the crowd to protest had she needed to travel further for treatment.
"Being able to get to the Ulster Hospital quickly was essential for me. A life-saver," she said.
"If I'd had to go to Belfast I might not be here today to support them. Sadly I think the decision is already made, but we have to make a stand. We need the people who make decisions to listen to us."
Sisters Noeline McConvey and Sarah McCrory from Newtownards also spoke from personal experience.
"Our father had a stroke," they said. "No matter what age you are you need these services and you need them close to home. There's a golden hour that can save your life. Are people really going to make it to Belfast in time?
"It's great if there's a centre of excellence elsewhere if you're in it, but the Ambulance Service is struggling, the health service is struggling.
"Last week's cancelled meeting showed they've underestimated the strength of feeling against this plan."
Kirsty McDowell is head of health and wellbeing at Kilcooley Womens' Centre in Bangor and set up the Facebook campaign 'Save the Ulster Stroke Service'.
"We've been to all the consultations and many were poorly attended, I wanted to make sure people had the opportunity to have a say," she said.
"I'm delighted with the number of people turning up. The numbers turning up last week had a real effect on getting the message out that people are concerned.
"Closing Ulster Hospital services will put the Royal under intense pressure at a time when there are pressures everywhere in the health service.
"The best treatment also needs to be delivered quickly enough. There needs to be a balance.
"The department can now see how many people are willing to speak up to say they want the services retained. I only hope they are willing to listen."
Among those on the panel fielding questions was Dr Brid Farrell, assistant director service development in the Public Health Agency.
She said no final decision on the future of stroke services had yet been made.
"We need to reorganise, develop seven day services on fewer sites," she said.
"No decisions have been made, we want to hear views. We want patients to have better outcomes and we're here to listen to concerns and see how we can mitigate them."
The extended consultation period on the future of stroke services closes on August 30.