Multiple sclerosis sufferer Philomena McKay was supported by hundreds of protesters outside Stormont as she handed over a 20,000-strong petition urging Health Minister Jim Wells to reverse plans to close an MS respite centre.
The Glens of Antrim woman was in Belfast to outline concerns about plans to close the MS facility at Ballycastle's Dalriada Hospital at the end of this month until next March.
Mrs McKay handed over the petition with 19,944 names - more than the whole population of the Moyle District Council area - and she asked Mr Wells: "Please promise us it will be a good result".
However, Mr Wells, who had come out of a Stormont health debate to speak to protesters through a loudspeaker, replied: "I can't do that."
Protesters chanted "No More Cuts" and "Save Dalriada" and Mr Wells willingly stepped into the bear pit at the foot of the Stormont steps where the exchanges were largely good-natured.
Mr Wells said he had discussions with Dalriada patients and he will visit the hospital, but added they had to find £70m of savings and they will save £600,000 by closing the Dalriada unit temporarily.
He said he has been placed in a "terribly difficult" decision. He said he told MLAs that if they feel there are alternatives, they can work with him.
Mr Wells said he has had "a few sleepless nights", adding: "I am listening but I still have to square the books".
Dalriada Hospital Deputy Ward Sister Jane Leighton said staff had been "overwhelmed" by the public support.
Rathlin Islander Ian Duncan's wife Nuala is a nurse at Dalriada Hospital and they travelled with dog Torr in a 1991 4x4 with the slogan 'SavetheDal' sprayed on to its paintwork.
Recently married, he said he and his wife were on honeymoon in Italy when news came through of the closure plans "which put a bit of a dampener on things".
Nevin Taggart (69), from Bushmills, said it was a "great cross-community, cross-party, turnout".
North Antrim DUP MLA Paul Frew said Mr Wells had agreed to "scrutinise the figures and ask the Trust to ensure that they look at all other alternatives".
East Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan said the protest "shows the depth of feeling in the community".
Moyle Council Chairman Donal Cunningham (SDLP) said the cuts are "illogical and nothing to do with health care".
Sinn Fein councillor Cara McShane praised the cross-community nature of the protests and said: "We're all in this together."
Inside the Stormont debating chamber, Mr Wells admitted his predecessor Edwin Poots gave an assurance there were no plans to shut down the care unit in the Dalriada Hospital.
North Antrim TUV MLA Jim Allister argued the letter had created legitimate expectations "that the minister should feel honour-bound to live up to".
Mr Wells responded: "The letter was signed by my predecessor and I am looking carefully at the contents of that letter.
"It said there were no plans to curtail the future services at Dalriada. It is germane."
Mr Allister went on: "I will continue to press the minister. It also seems to me to strengthen any judicial review, as creating a 'legitimate expectation', and then defaulting on it, is a proper ground for such a challenge."
Mr Wells also refused to say whether he would intervene to reverse a decision to remove Multiple Sclerosis respite services provided at Dalriada Hospital.
The minister appealed to elected representatives to help find a solution, asking: "Can they come up with an alternative to this decision that would be more acceptable to their community?"
Philomena McKay (54) from Cushendun is mounting a legal challenge against the announced closure of Dalriada Hospital’s MS unit in Ballycastle on the basis that the Northern Health Trust “failed to carry out adequate consultation” with patients and staff.
She said: “It will mean absolute devastation if I can’t go there, stress, and will exacerbate everything to do with MS, symptoms, conditions. Our bodies are breaking down as it is, do they want to add to this?
“Alternatives have been talked about — respite at home, nursing homes or trying to replace the ‘Dal’. Why would you go to that expense when you have that (the hospital)?
“It is a complete lifeline, for me, my family. We go to the ‘Dal’ and meet up with friends, we counsel each other. We can see maybe how each other has fallen or got worse since the last time. I have been going for four-and-a-half years but some others have been going for over 11 years.”
Mrs McKay had travelled to Belfast in a convoy of buses which made a 120-mile round trip from north Antrim.
She has instructed her lawyers to seek a judicial review following the announcement of the temporary closure plans.
Brian McGarry (61) from Armoy has been going to the Multiple Sclerosis Respite Centre at the Dalriada Hospital for 13 years.
He told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday: “When I go to the centre it is for respite to give the wife a break as well as to give me a bit of a break too. We can have a chat with each other at the centre. It will be a severe blow to me if it closes because I will be cut off from my friends who I meet there.”
His wife Marian said: “I really do depend on Dalriada. It is just a perfect set-up. They (health chiefs) have asked us to get direct payments which is a no-no and not suitable.
“It is not easy to get to our house, we have been snowed in a couple of times and one of those times we had to be rescued and they took Brian to Dalriada.”
Marian said she “had it in writing” from previous Health Minister Edwin Poots that people booked in for MS respite care at Dalriada Hospital “would be honoured”.
At the bottom of the Stormont steps yesterday, Mrs McGarry confronted Health Minister Jim Wells about the letter which was later raised inside chamber by North Antrim TUV MLA Jim Allister.