Hitching to Bantry to help feed his blind granny when he was just 10 years old may have given TD Michael Collins the impetus to begin the ‘Belfast or Blind’ initiative years later, along with his Kerry counterpart Danny Healy Rae
‘At 10 years of age my mother used to ask me to thumb to the hospital to feed my grandmother who was blind,’ said Michael Collins, the Independent TD for Cork South West.
‘I used to do that several days a week during the summer,’ he said, ‘because my mother knew the staff in Schull would be busy.’
Michael recalled how he would mash potato with chicken to spoon-feed his nan, Mary McCarthy of Letter, Goleen.
As formative experiences go, it could account for the unstinting effort that goes into organising the so-called Belfast or Blind bus – the 100th of which departed from Cork city on Saturday.
The service, which has been in operation for the last five years, offers people the chance to avail of speedy, sight-saving cataract surgery at the Kingsbridge Private Hospital instead of remaining on lengthy waiting lists.
‘Each trip – from the first to the 100th – takes an enormous amount of time to organise,’ said Michael, who estimated that each journey takes about 16 hours and 350 phone calls.
Michael and his Rural Independent Group colleague Danny Healy-Rae first began offering places under the EU cross border healthcare initiative, but that has since been replaced with the Northern Ireland Health Care Initiative.
It’s a scheme that allows people to receive treatment in other countries and recoup the cost against the State.
The first bus left West Cork in December 2017 with just 13 people on board but since then more than 3,000 people have had the surgery and their sight restored.
‘Never once did we leave a seat empty, even if someone was to ring at short notice and say they were sick or had a bereavement,’ said Goleen TD Michael.
The TD would simply pull out his directory and phone the next person on the list.
‘For a variety of reasons, I’d get six or seven refusals, but I always got a replacement,’ said Michael, ‘because I never wanted a seat to be lost.’
Michael explained that the first calls are always conversations with individuals looking to find out about the practicalities of the procedure.
‘That’s not just one call,’ he said, ‘there might be seven or eight because everything needs to be explained.
‘Everything like the need for a GP referral letter, the times of the buses, where they will be staying, details about the taxis for the consultation on the first day and the procedure on the second,’ he added.
‘I have to consult too with the hospital, the hotel, the bus hire company and the taxi service. And sometimes we’d have to help people get the financial side sorted, such as a bridging loan with their credit union. On occasion, about five weeks after the procedure, when people are home and their sight has been restored, we’d have to help, too, with queries about the reimbursement,’ he said.
Covid saw the suspension of operations for a period of about four or five months, but as soon as there was any leeway at all the buses were back on the road.
‘Of course,’ Michael said, ‘that meant we had to factor in the different regulations, north and south. And we had to comply with every pandemic restriction including organising PCR tests.
‘To provide enough space, we needed bigger buses too,’ he added.
‘And throughout it all we never confined it to West Cork or Kerry. Anyone who asked for our assistance,’ said Michael, ‘received it.’
Michael said his grandmother was in her late 70s when she was taken into hospital after her eyesight deteriorated to the point that she was fully blind in both eyes.
‘That was in the 1970s,’ he said, ‘but even today, in 2022, the government is doing the same thing – playing Russian roulette with people’s eyesight and letting them go blind.’
It all started with a chat at the Ploughing Championships!
‘IT is one of the things that I will be proud of forever,’ the Independent TD Danny Healy-Rae said about organising the Belfast or Blind buses with his colleague Michael Collins.
It was Michael Collins (Ind) who first hit on the notion of busing people to the North for healthcare after talking to a representative of the Kingsbridge Private Hospital who was manning a trade stand at the National Ploughing Championships in 2017.
The rep explained to him – and subsequently to Danny at a meeting convened at the Dáil in Dublin – how the EU cross border health directive would allow people to have medical treatment in other countries and recoup the cost from the State.
The success of John Patrick Harrington’s treatment in October 2017 at the age of 90 led the two TDs – who were already affiliated as part of the Rural Independent Group – to organise the first bus in December of that year.
Like the people who travelled on the so-called contraception train in 1971, the 13 older people who took that first journey did something ground-breaking too.
Both Michael and Danny said they feel honoured to be associated with this very necessary service over the last five years.
‘My grandmother Mary Healy lived to be 97 and the only worry that she had was that she would “go dark”,’ said Danny, who recalled how she lost her sight in the last six months of her life.
‘In addition to those who have travelled for cataract operations,’ he said, ‘are those who have had surgery on their knees and hips and shoulders.’
Danny said they see all kinds of cases, including one young fella – he said cannot remember if he was aged nine or 11 – who was in ‘an awful way trying to read his schoolbooks’ but had ‘perfect vision’ after the operation.
Michael said they help elderly people whose driving licences have been revoked. ‘Their doctors wouldn’t sign off on them until they had the op,’ he said.
Both men say they are ‘inspired by the patients who are physically challenged because it takes them all they can do to get the bus to Belfast.
‘You have to admire them for doing their part,’ said Michael. ‘Clearly, they would do anything to get their sight back.’
Both Michael and Danny believe it is ‘a sad reflection on the HSE, the government, and the minister of health that these people have no other options available to them.
Danny illustrated his point by saying: ‘The grandfather of one of the first men I put on the bus had his cataracts removed in St Catherine’s Hospital in Tralee in 1968. It’s backwards that this country is going.’