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Leona O'Neill: I hope our NHS heroes will be treated fairly... we need them

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

By Leona O'Neill

Heading to the hospital on Wednesday morning, I heard a reporter on the radio say that health trust chiefs could not guarantee patient safety during the unprecedented strike action called by health workers.

I'll not lie, it struck fear into my heart. My mother had major cancer surgery on her neck the night before and was therefore very weak and vulnerable as she recovered.

All the talk about strike action, working to rule, thousands of nurses 'all out' had scared the life out of me, and it was all many of the loved ones in the hospital cafe - a place the nervous and waiting tend to congregate - talked about that morning.

Inside the hospital, things seemed to be going on much as normal. As I waited for the lift, staff pushed patients by in beds, the reception was manned. It was not the apocalypse my addled and stressed mind had imagined.

A group of people waiting on the lift were talking about the breast clinic - where breast cancer is diagnosed - being cancelled, with 40 appointments postponed. Knowing the stress and anxiety this appointment even evokes, I felt desperately sorry for all of those women.

I had spoken to a health worker the night before, while the sun went down behind the hill beyond the hospital windows and my mother was still in theatre. The poor guy had been waiting for the lift and I had practically accosted him and blurted out my fears over my mum's care during the strike.

He put a balm on my fears and reassured me that my mother would be well looked after, that patients always come first.

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As I walked out of the lift and into my mum's ward, I knew that he was right.

The nurses there got on with the business of caring for those who found themselves there. There was no panic. Buzzers were pressed and answered. No one suffered. Nurses adopted a Christmas Day rota, and took it in shifts to stand on the picket line.

My mother was well cared for. All night these angels watched over her, checking her blood pressure and the various tubes and wires that she has been hooked up to, administering pain medication and making her comfortable, pulling the blanket up around her and getting her another pillow when her neck was sore. When she came round, she said they had made her the greatest cup of tea and toast she had ever tasted.

From my mum's ward on high I could see down to the picket line. There were hundreds of staff there, standing in torrential rain and howling wind, demanding equality. I'll admit that made me very angry. Not because they had walked out - because I support them 100% in this action - but because it had come to this. It made me furious that our most crucial and irreplaceable workers, those who keep our loved ones alive, those who fight to save human life every day of the week, who are there for us when our need is greatest, when we are at our most vulnerable, were reduced to standing in the bitter cold and driving rain to call for equal pay.

I thought of the nurses who had been there for my mum in the last few days, the care they had given her, how they had shown such compassion, looked after her like she was their own mum, and I knew how much it would have taken for them to walk away from their wards and their patients even for a few hours. I know many of them did a lot of soul-searching and stood on those picket lines with tears in their eyes.

In the corridor of my mum's hospital ward is a notice board packed with 'Thank You' cards. The cards are filled with warm sentiments for the staff, with gratitude for looking after loved ones so well, for saving their life, for being so supportive, for holding their hand when they were scared, for taking away their pain and their fear, for showing love and compassion and supporting them in their darkest hour. I don't think you can put a price on that, but the least we can do is pay the people who mean so much, who do so much, in line with their English colleagues.

Back in the ward the beeps of the various medical equipment almost, but not quite, drowned out the sound of the car horns being sounded in solidarity with the striking workers outside in the rain.

My mum will once again depend greatly on the health service in the coming months. I hope the heroes who we find ourselves on this journey with will be treated fairly. We need them.

Belfast Telegraph

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