All aboard the first historic ‘cataract express' to Belfast

December 24th, 2017 6:25 PM

By Southern Star Team

Mr Wing Chan, left, the ophthalmologist who did 13 cataract operations, each taking about 15 minutes, last Sunday. There are more buses planned for January and February.

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A group of 13 people from Cork and Kerry travelled across the border last weekend so they wouldn’t go blind. The Southern Star journeyed with them

A TOTAL of 13 people of ‘a certain age’ did something rather militant on Saturday and Sunday last – they boarded a bus to Belfast for cataract operations and, in the process, highlighted a healthcare system that is, in their opinion, ‘broken.’

These healthcare crusaders – six from West Cork, six from Kerry, and one from Cork city – had lost so much of their eyesight that their lives had altered dramatically. 

Some had stopped working because their co-ordination was gone, whilst others experienced a loss of independence so great that they no longer felt safe as motorists.

West Cork TD, Michael Collins, and Kerry TD, Danny Healy Rae, organised the first of what is likely to be a series of bus trips for fully-refundable healthcare under the Cross Border Healthcare initiative, regardless of whether a person has private healthcare insurance or not.

Independent TD Michael Collins told The Southern Star it was only after a random meeting with a representative of Kingsbridge Private Hospital at the National Ploughing Championships, earlier this year, that he came to fully understand the implications of invoking EU rights to healthcare under the Cross Border directive.

Before that, he said, he had been trying to deal with the people who came to his West Cork clinics on a case-by-case basis. 

With Michael Collins’ assistance, 90-year old John Patrick Harrington from Coomhola – a man who was on the verge of going blind – got the ball rolling.

At the end of October, he and his son, Jerry, made the 600-mile round trip and a report on the front page of The Southern Star opened the floodgates. 

Shortly afterwards, staff at Kingsbridge Private Hospital contacted the newspaper to say they were inundated with requests for further information about how to access the Cross Border Healthcare scheme.

Last Sunday, December 17th, the CEO of Kingsbridge, Mark Regan, was there to warmly welcome the 13 private patients, each of whom paid around €1,500 for their operation, secure in the knowledge that they would get a full refund from the HSE within a few weeks.

On this occasion, the baker’s dozen didn’t have to pay for their transport – which was covered by the TDs – they just paid for their accommodation, as well as their food and beverages along the way.

At the hospital, they were treated like five-star guests and were even presented with a beautifully wrapped gift, a memento of Belfast, as they were leaving.

One would expect that the journey would have been tough, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Family and friends drove the patients to collection points in Bantry, Kerry and Cork, and there was another scheduled stop at Junction 14 in Co Kildare, for media interviews. 

There were reporters on the ‘cataract express’, too. Most people were happy to be interviewed and to have their photographs taken. But some were shy.

Danny Healy Rae also lightened the mood considerably with a few tunes on his accordion. And one man likened the journey to ‘the day of an All-Ireland final.’

Skibbereen woman, Eileen Burchill, had kept a low profile on Saturday. She is a quiet, modest woman and not in the habit of giving press interviews, but there was a golden moment on Sunday when – about 30 minutes after her cataract operation – she crossed the floor of the day room and asked the reporter from The Southern Star: ‘Will you do something for me? Will you thank Michael Collins and Danny? And will you put a shine on it?’

Kindness and craic were the hallmarks of this historic journey. The TDs fetched and carried. 

They even put their hands in their own pockets for food and beverages for people who have dodgy knees and hips, and didn’t feel like jumping in and out of the bus at the scheduled stops.

It’s not every day you see two TDs standing at the bus stop helping people in and out, especially when the fog warning kicked in on the return journey on Sunday night.

There was a hugely positive response to the cataract bus trip on social media, but there were some naysayers – like the person who questioned why two TDs – with fat salaries – were taking up seats on a bus that would have been better used by people in need.

Let the record show that Mr Wing Chan, the ophthalmologist, could only deal with 13 people in one day and that’s how many travelled. On Sunday, Kingsbridge Private Hospital was also given over entirely to the West Cork and Kerry contingent.

Mark Regan said Kingsbridge will take all comers: those in need of new knees and hips; even those who want bits removed, such as gallbladders. 

In November 2016, he said, Kingsbridge dealt with five or six cross-border health cases, but in November 2017, after John Patrick Harrington’s epic journey, that number rocketed to more than 200.

On this occasion, the logistics of who, what, when, where and how, were all dealt with by Michael and Danny – with the paperwork being finalised at Kingsbridge – but they are hoping to establish a proper bus link to Belfast.

The TDs have even enlisted the support of the credit unions, who can provide a type of bridging finance for those who need it.

The next bus goes in January. There is one booked for February too. But it will go on, said Michael Collins, because there are 8,667 people on the country’s cataract waiting list – a list that could involve anything from a one-year wait to three years, four, or more. It is during this time – waiting to be seen by a consultant or waiting for a cataract operation – that people, quite  literally, go blind.

As for the craic on this trip, there were people like Pat Doyle, the bus driver, who raised more than a smile when he sang: ‘I can see clearly now the cataracts have gone.’ 

On Sunday, he even managed to outdo Danny Healy Rae for roguery when he exited onto the motorway and said: ‘Danny, I think I may have developed cataracts – it’s gone all foggy.’

Some people left their homes at 8am on Saturday, December 16th, and didn’t get home until 4am on Monday, December 18th. But there was no moaning, no complaining, and, rather surprisingly, no real fatigue – there was just kindness, gratitude and compassion all round.

Anyone who would like more information about the Cross Border healthcare directive can contact Michael Collins, Danny Healy Rae, or Kingsbridge Private Hospital. To contact the hospital directly phone 048 90688858, or email [email protected]


• A spokesperson for junior health minister Jim Daly contacted the newspaper this week to remind us that it was Minister Daly who made the people of West Cork aware of the cross-border scheme in the first instance, when the Minister distributed an insert in The Southern Star on September 21st, outlining the scheme.

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