Belfast Telegraph

Leona O'Neill: My mum's just been diagnosed with cancer... but patients like her still come first for our striking NHS heroes


Leona O’Neill with her mum Gloria
Leona O’Neill with her mum Gloria
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

My mother, a sprightly, energetic, vibrant woman in her 70s, was diagnosed with cancer in the midst of the health workers strike.

Everyone she has dealt with in the last few weeks on this journey from nurses to doctors to consultants so far have been absolute heroes.

Our NHS is a godsend and we are so lucky to have a plethora of amazing, experienced workers keeping us all safe and healthy.

But it is a health system buckling under the pressure, it is clear that it is in critical condition and that is why this health workers strike had to happen.

Tomorrow will see a 24-hour period of all-out industrial action by health service workers, with even paramedics joining nurses and other healthcare workers in unprecedented strike action.

I guess if you're looking at it from the outside, driving past the strikers on the picket line outside the hospitals while you are going about your day to day business, it might not seem like a big deal. But to the people who find themselves on the inside of the hospital, or by the beds of their loved ones, or waiting for life changing test results, it is certainly panic inducing.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago we passed that picket line on the way to mum's consultation at Altnagelvin Hospital. I'll admit I barely registered the placards as my mind was solely focused on my mum.

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In the consultation room, we were told that a CT scan and biopsy had in fact picked up cancer and that she needed to have surgery and further tests to determine if it had spread due to more suspicious lumps elsewhere. We were told that a meeting about mum's case had been cancelled because of the strike.

As we drove out of the hospital - shellshocked by what had just entered our lives - I noticed the picket line. I noticed the placards. I noticed a few politicians standing alongside the health workers having their picture taken. It took all my will power not to get out of the car and urge them in the strongest possible terms to get back to work.

The rest of the day and week was a blur. We were fast-tracked into the breast clinic for further cancer tests, told we should have an appointment before the weekend.

Whether strike action or other circumstances in the hospital made it so, we didn't get in to get these tests done for a further week and now have to wait another week for results.

Yesterday we arrived at the hospital for her surgery. We got into a lift with a group of nurses. Taped to the elevator wall was a leaflet about the strike and pay parity. The nurses talked among themselves, asking each other if they were 'out'. They nodded and said 'yes we're all out'.

We spoke to the consultants, nurses and surgeons before theatre. Fantastic people all, experts in their fields and reassuring in their tone.

One after another they came with their folders and forms to be filled in. Some spoke of the chaos over the strikes, that nurses were thin on the ground, surgeries had been cancelled and they didn't know what shape today's strike action would take.

Cancer makes your world suddenly smaller. For me in that moment, my mum was where my concern started and ended.

As I sat there I thought to myself, 'My mother is undergoing major surgery, I hope that there will be people here in the next few days to look after her properly'.

I didn't share this fear with her, as she had quite enough to worry about. A cancer diagnosis lifts you out of the real world and thrusts you into the world of consultant appointments, doctors surgeries, hospitals, waiting rooms and defining test results.

It is quite terrifying placing your loved one's life in the hands of the medical experts and hearing the words 'work to rule' and 'all-out strikes' in the corridors when someone you love depends so much on their care. While watching the minutes drop like hours as my mum underwent surgery I got speaking to a health worker. All the fears I had held in this far spilled out. Will there be nurses here to look after her? Will there be pressure put on services? Will my mum be okay during this strike?

He told me that they would never leave a patient unattended, that they are always their first priority and that nurses were going to rotate their strike action. I knew he would have said that, because they are exceptional people, our health workers, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Our politicians haven't worked for almost three years and have got paid. Our health workers just want parity, not special treatment. Our society is messed up.

I have seen first hand how crucial our nurses are to this health ecosystem we unfortunately find ourselves in and they deserve fair pay. I place absolutely no blame on them for this dire situation that all the patients who find themselves residents in this hospital are talking about.

The Government needs to act now and pay these workers in line with their colleagues in England. There is no need for this strike action. It could end tomorrow.

I don't know what today will bring and what shape this strike will take but I'm not leaving my mum's side.

And I'll be here while sending solidarity to the striking heroes who keep us all safe day in and day out.

Belfast Telegraph

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