Today (Thursday) was the final day of a journey which was one of the biggest experiences of my life so far.
Eight weeks ago to the day (July 9th) the journey started with a trip to University Hospital, Galway (UHG) for radiotherapy for prostate cancer.
Along with many others from Donegal, the journey is both challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
For now Galway is the nearest centre for radiotherapy treatment for Donegal patients and for some, especially older patients, it presents a huge challenge.
However, once you are in Galway, the service provided is top class. Currently, it would seem that the greatest number of patients from Donegal are being treated for prostate cancer.
In UHG, the radiotherapy department consists of three stations, named after the Aran Island - Inis Mór, Inis Meain and Inis Oirr. Along with the three different stations, there is a back-up medical station which looks after the day to day needs of the patients - blood pressure tests, blood tests, medicines, etc.
The staff at all of these stations are world class. From day one you are made to feel relaxed, you are referred to by your Christian name, something which made the mind boggle, given the sheer numbers that they encounter each day.
The workload is heavy, but it is done with a smile on the face from 8.20 a.m. sometimes to 8 p.m. The homely and friendly nature of the staff can smooth the journey when it is getting tough.
The treatment itself doesn’t last long, from four to ten minutes depending on each individual. Add in another five minutes for preparation and the dreaded water intake for prostate candidates, the maximum time involved is less than an hour. Having a full bladder for the treatment is the one little problem that causes most worry for the males. It’s a delicate balance but, like riding a bicycle, you get a feel for it!
The other part of the journey in Galway for the Donegal patients is the accommodation provided by Cancer Care West in their state-of-the-art premises, Inis Aoibheann (or the Lodge as it is better known).
Here the same friendly welcome and hospitality is provided to match that of the radiotherapy department with bed and breakfast and evening meal. Again the staff have that knack of knowing everyone’s Christian name. Here also, the accommodation includes provision for a partner of family member to stay with the patient. The rooms are similar to hotel rooms and there are also day rooms where people can read, watch television or just chat.
This is important to while away the hours each day. Remember the treatment takes up about an hour of the day so there is plenty of free time to do other things.
Since opening in March 2007, 2,391 patients had used the seervice up to the end of 2014. They come from all the counties that are close to Galway with Mayo and Donegal now topping the list. The rise in the Donegal total is gradual until 2011 but it then rose sharply, which is due in no small part to the provision of transport by the Donegal Cancere Bus.
You can see by the graph at the bottom of the opposite page that Donegal now almost rivals Mayo in th enumber of patients taking up residence at The Lodge. To date 452 Donegal patients have availed of The Lodge up to the end of last year.
The biggest part of the journey - or the real journey some might say - is getting to and from Galway. This is the area where the Donegal Cancer Bus fills a most important role. Every Monday the bus leaves Letterkenny at around 6.45 a.m. There are feeder busses in operation from Inishowen, West Donegal and Falcarragh which meet the departure time. The bus continues on to Donegal Town where there is a link from Killybegs if needed. It continues its journey with toilet stop in Grange and short stop in Ballindine before arriving at The Lodge at around 10.30 a.m. The current driver on the Monday stage is Plunkett Martin.
THREE STOP STRATEGY!
The return journey takes place on Friday morning with well known comedian and former psychiatric nurse, Fergus Cleary, at the wheel. The departure time is 9.30 but sometimes it is near ten before all the Donegal patients have been dealt with.
There is a gentleman’s agreement with the radiotherapy department that the Donegal patients get priority on Friday morning so that they can get the bus.
On the way back there is a three stop strategy, owing to the amount of extra water on board! The first stop is at the West Wing Restaurant in Tuam and then in Ballindine for a ten minute break.
These breaks are sometimes filled by impromptu interludes from Fergus, which goes a long way to shortening the journey. The final stop is in Grange but Fergus normally eases any worries of those on board by saying that “I know every whin bush between here and Grange!”
The drivers give up their day voluntarily to complete the journey - a huge contribution to a very important service.
In my eight week duration of treatment I took the bus on four occasions and the car on the other weeks because it suited. It is a marvellous service but also a daunting one for people from the northern parts of the county.
In those weeks I have encountered people from Dunkineely, Killybegs, Ardara, Glenties, Maas, Lettermacaward, Dungloe, Annagry, Carrickfinn, Gweedore, Dunfanaghy, Milford, Ramelton, Letterkenny, Manorcunningham, Buncrana, Carndonagh, Malin, Moville, Convoy, Lifford, Ballybofey, Donegal Town, Ballyshannon and Bundoran. The list is staggering!
By any stretch, that is nearly every area of the county covered in an eight week period. It would be marvellous to have the facility closer than Galway but then even it was in Sligo, the need for transport and accommodation would still be a necessity for some patients from remote areas of Donegal.
There is a hope that the facility will be available in Altnagelvin in Derry in the very near future, but without accommodation that will still only service a section of Donegal. It will, however, ease the pain for those in the Inishowen peninsula at least.
CANCER BUS BACKGROUND
The Donegal cancer bus has completed six years on the road and is co-ordinated by Eamon McDevitt and his wife, Lynn. The service is based in Letterkenny and came about after a lobby group which set up a Charity Shop to raise funds in 2007 - The Good and New Charity Shop.
Everything attached to the charity is voluntary from shop workers to the bus drivers. The main aim of the charity was to aid Donegal cancer patients and their families. The idea of the bus came about through their interaction with the Oncology Department who saw that there was transport provided for treatment in Dublin but not in Galway.
“They asked us to help and initially we started using our own cars before then buying a small bus. But as the numbers increased the present bus was purchased at a cost of 50,000 euro,” said Eamon.
“We have feeder busses from Inishowen, West Donegal, Gortahork and Killybegs when needed and if we had funds we would like to extend that service to the likes of Gweedore and Fanad,” said Eamon, who also acts as a driver for the Galway journey when needed.
The service, which costs around 1,000 euro a week to provide, is completely free to the patients. The money needed to provide this service is raised by the charity through its shop and various fund-raising activities which are held in various parts of the country - music nights, birthday parties, etc.
My journey ends today, hopefully with a positive outcome. My main reasons for telling my story is to make it easier for the many more who will make the journey in the coming weeks and years.
Prostate cancer is now the main cancer suffered by males in Ireland but the survival rates have risen dramatically and are now over 90%.
In that regard it is important that all men over the age of 50 should have a PSA test done with the GP.
My other reason for telling the story is to raise awareness for both Cancer Care West (who provide the accommodation) and the Donegal Cancer bus (which provides the transport). Any time you hear of an event or collection for these two bodies, you should be very happy to support them because they provide a magnificent service. These two services are vital for Donegal patients.