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They work in dire conditions, but the angels guiding me through this terrible disease give care beyond compare


Grateful: Monica McWilliams

Grateful: Monica McWilliams

Grateful: Monica McWilliams

I was in the hands of an angel last night. Her name was Joan. The night before the angel's name was Julia and the days and nights before that there was Catherine and Dolorous and numerous others.

Space does not allow me to name each one of them but they deserve to be singled out for the work they do. They are the nurses in the acute ward in the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital. I have got to know them as I have been in their care for the last week and since this is Breast Cancer Awareness month, I wanted to raise awareness about the work that oncology staff do for their patients.

I am one of 4,700 cancer patients diagnosed this year and confirmation of the statistic that one in eight women have a lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Despite knowing these numbers, it still comes as a shock when you hear the diagnosis. In my case, I discovered a lump during the summer and had thought it was just an abscess. I had it checked out and was initially relieved that the biopsy didn't confirm anything serious. It was my meticulous breast surgeon who conveyed the news I had a malignant tumour and any woman diagnosed with breast cancer will be familiar with the story from that point on.

Those early weeks can be anxious ones as the questions come pouring out. How far has it spread? What are the survival rates? What does the treatment involve?

Learning how to cope with the chemo is for some women their major concern whilst, for others, it's the hair loss. The wigs these days are far in advance of the one I remember Mo Mowlam (below) wearing which Mo often told me was neither stylish nor comfortable. Another plus for the NHS is that the wigs now look good, feel fine and are free. Nicola, an angel in the support and information centre, helps women make this transition as does the aromatherapy and yoga and other services on offer at the Macmillan Centre which help patients cope with chemo.

My sister had been through the 'breast cancer journey' before me and had recently got the all-clear so I thought I had some idea of what was coming next. But as my oncologist, Dr Seamus McAleer pointed out 'every patient is unique and each will react differently to the treatment'.

I soon realised this myself when I had to make a call to the oncology help line, ten days after my first chemo, when I started to have a sore/septic throat.

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I was told by Dolorous, one of those angels who provide the helpline advice that no matter the concern, however great or small, just make that call. I could have waited as I was a bit of a novice at taking my temperature but having that little thermometer close at hand was key as was that phone call. So reach out to the helpline when something isn't quite right, particularly during the early stages of treatment when the learning curve can be a very steep one.

Since that day I have experienced every part of the NHS, from emergency care to acute care, hospital care and community care. We sometimes query if the word 'care' is justified when attached to each of these areas and for patients it will depend on whether the 'care' is real or just another word on the form.

From the paramedics who took me to casualty on a busy Saturday night to the medics and nurses in all their specialist fields, their care was put into action. As I was a chemo patient with an infection the paramedics were vigilant in ensuring that I was isolated in a separate cubicle before they brought me into casualty.

But isolated was I how felt as I sat for the next seven hours behind a curtain listening to two inebriated males giving dog's abuse to the staff outside.

Although I can't be sure, I figured the 30-year-old drunk roaring his head off was probably the same man who had urinated all over the floor in the unisex toilet. I swore then that if I had to walk a mile to find a woman's toilet in future, I would do so. The facilities at the Royal are awful and not what sick people should be exposed to. As usual, it is the staff who are left to pick up the pieces.

They are the angels who do not fear to tread but both they, and we – their patients, should not have to put up with the interminable delays and dire facilities.

Most of us will remember the rationale for closing Belvoir and locating the new Regional Cancer Unit at the City was because it would be located next to an Accident and Emergency unit.

Two years ago a decision was made to close this emergency unit and merge it with the Royal so the question that now needs to be addressed is whether the facilities at the Royal are up to NHS standards for emergency cancer patients – or indeed for any patients.

Finally that night another set of angels arrived, again in the form of paramedics, and escorted me gently from that mayhem.

I was brought to what I now call my place of sanctuary, the Cancer Centre at the City. Never did a cup of tea taste so good, it reminded me of those wonderful cups of tea given to patients after each surgery along with toast that tastes spectacular.

It is these little touches, the tea and toast, the smile, the kind word of reassurance that help to keep the morale boosted and the anxiety at bay.

Being told by Dr Graham in the Bridgewater suite where I received my first chemo that tears were ok was also a comfort. I needed to hear those words as I was particularly disappointed to discover that the vein in my 'good' arm was not taking in the chemo so Jackie, another angel, had to inform me that I would be going home that night without it.

Breast cancer patients who have had their lymph glands removed from one arm may need a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter ) to be utilised and that is exactly what happened next in my case. The infusion team came to the rescue with the promise that I would get my PICC first thing the next morning so I could go home reassured that the chemo was only being postponed for one day.

The next day was a good one as I had the privilege of observing a highly competent nurse insert a tube into a vein in my upper arm and push it across my chest until it reached a chamber in my heart. Never did I think I could lie there as Dympna, this calm and competent angel, told me to watch the monitor so I could follow a little lollipop as it made this journey and found its resting place for the next six months. After that, it was all plain sailing as I proceeded to get my chemo infused through my new PICC and strolled home an hour later. The PICC is dressed at home by the district nurse on a weekly basis so when the word 'care' is attached to hospital or acute or community, then that is exactly what I have received alongside the highest level of professional skills. I am in the hands of staff using their heads, their hands and their hearts to provide a solution to every problem.

From now on I will be a regular at the Bridgewater suite where despite the first impression of an overcrowded waiting room, the staff are efficient and effective, going the extra mile for patients and working their socks off day-in and day-out.

In crossing the paths of the medics and paramedics, the pre-op, recovery and ward staff, the oncology nurses, the consultants, the radiologists and the anaesthetist, I have yet to come across a sour or grumpy person.

And how many of us could say that about our own workplace?

I am also aware that there are many others whom I have not met face-to-face, such as the hospital pharmacists and the lab teams whose critical decisions have a huge impact on patients' lives.

I have seen at first hand how they are all bringing their different skills together for the good of their patients. The nurses told me how much they love their jobs and how they are here to help their patients survive. I thought this was particularly humbling given how little they are paid for the important work they do.

So in this month of October – designated for breast cancer awareness – let's give a special thanks to the guardians of the NHS who despite everything that is being thrown at them, are delivering health care at its very best and saving lives as they do so.



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