Brú Columbanus: Safe haven and sanctuary

A major fundraiser takes place this weekend for Brú Columbanus to allow it to expand. CHRIS DUNNE talks to families who benefited from their support
Brú Columbanus: Safe haven and sanctuary
Helen Murphy and husband Francis.

WEST Cork couple, Helen Murphy and her husband, Francis, spent very little time apart during their 19 years of married life. So when Francis became seriously ill after a bout of flu, Helen wanted to be near him when he was admitted to Cork University Hospital.

“Brú Columbanus is a fantastic place,” says Helen, who lives in Durrus.

“The facility provided us, my daughter Emma, and my son, Peter, with a valuable space to call our own when Francis was very near death. I was able to focus just on him and not worry about the kids.

“There was no financial stress involved when we didn’t have to go looking for accommodation near to the hospital. That really helped all of us,” says Helen.

“Other family members could visit us at Brú Columbanus and my friends in Cork could call in to see how we were doing.”

The Murphys couldn’t commute daily to and from their home in West Cork, 60 miles away from CUH.

“We had to be near the hospital because of the gravity of the situation,” says Helen.

“It was very traumatic. We were given a suite in Brú Columbanus with two bedrooms complete with en suites and a bathroom, as well as a living room. The rooms are really beautiful and they are the calibre of a top hotel,” says Helen.

“Peter made use of the recreation room which has a TV, table tennis table and a box of toys for younger children. If we needed anything; we just went to the desk at reception and it was sorted.”

Brú Columbanus was opened in September, 2005, under the auspices of the Knights of Columbanus with the objective of providing welcoming accommodation in a caring environment for families at a stressful time.

The facility can cater for 24 families. The site at Cardinal Way, Bishopstown, was donated by Cork City Council and the Health Service Executive, Southern area.

Helen never envisaged leaving her home for two months when Francis was sent to CUH after he developed lung problems.

“Dr Brain Carey monitored him in Bantry hospital,” says Helen. “He saved Francis’s life. Francis had to go on a ventilator and he was admitted to CUH. He was critical. I had to gown up to go and see him because he was in isolation. One doctor called me into a room and told me that it was unlikely that Francis would survive. I refused to believe it and the medical staff continued to work hard on Francis.

Helen Murphy and husband Francis with daughter Emma, son Peter.
Helen Murphy and husband Francis with daughter Emma, son Peter.

“He was a big, strong, healthy man, who had a bad reaction to the flu and he subsequently developed sepsis. It was a terrible shock. Fortunately, Francis had a strong heart.”

The family couldn’t see Francis much; but they could be near him.

“Niamh, a nurse we got to know in CUH, organised our accommodation at Brú for us,” says Helen.

“I had left home for Bantry hospital on a Friday night and I didn’t return home again. I followed Francis to CUH in the ambulance. Emma, my daughter, went home to get everything. She was brilliant.”

And having access to a safe, secure haven was brilliant. Brú Columbanus provided a sanctuary for the Murphy family who wanted to watch over Francis as the doctors strived to save his life.

“We were distraught,” says Helen. “Being relieved of any further stress was a God-send. What was already a nightmare would have become a much bigger one if we hadn’t the wonderful facility of Bru Columbanus. The burden was made lighter.

“The first week was just about survival. We had the use of a state-of-the-art kitchen. Every family had their own table and their own fridge.

“I didn’t eat much during the day. I often came from the hospital at times and I had some fruit and ice-cream that I could keep in the fridge. The weather was warm and we could keep ice in the freezer for cold drinks,” says Helen.

“Francis’s brothers came to visit him and we made tea for them while they relaxed in the large comfortable sitting-room.”

Helen was mindful of the house rules.

“I think I broke every rule going,” she says, laughing. “I kept going in and out of the wrong doors!”

Other people were in the same boat, seeking a safe harbour in a storm.

“We often met families staying at Brú Columbanus at the hospital,” says Helen. “We ran into them in the corridor or the waiting room. I remember Dorothy. We’d get each other tea from the canteen.”

The days passed. Helen, Emma and Peter, called every day to see Francis, hoping to see even a slight improvement. But he was not responding to treatment.

“The doctors decided to try one more thing,” says Helen. “Specialised treatment, called EMCO treatment, was an option in the Mater Hospital in Dublin. It was Francis’s last chance at life.”

Extracorporeal life support is a technique providing cardiac and respiratory support to patients whose heart and lungs are unable to provide an adequate amount of gas exchange or perfusion to sustain life.

“Francis’s organs were all OK,” says Helen. “Only his lungs were affected.”

After a long, arduous bout of treatment in the Mater Hospital in Dublin, Francis slowly began to show a slight improvement.

“After four weeks of no response, we were getting desperate,” says Helen.

“We had some very dark days. Everyone at The Mater looked after us as well.”

When Francis turned an essential corner for the better, he could come nearer home.

“He still had a long way to go,” says Helen. “He was still very seriously ill. He continued to be on life support in the ICU in CUH.”

The close-knit family returned to the homely familiarity of Brú Columbanus.

“I had a lovely comfortable room with Emma,” says Helen.

“Peter brought a mattress to sleep on the floor. There was never a question that we were taking up other people’s space, nor were we ever made to feel that we were.

“Brú Columbanus was home away from home. We even had a utility room to do our washing.”

Everybody mucked in.

“Our neighbours took over the farm,” says Helen.

“At the Mater, we got photos of twin calves that were born. The nurse showed Francis. ‘Look! You have twins’, she said.”

Now at Brú Columbanus for the second time, the Murphy family could lighten up and look to the future.

“The first time, I zoned out,” says Helen. “I think I may have been anti-social. The second time we came to Brú Columbanus, we had a laugh. We had got over the hump.”

Francis got well enough to return home where he met the ‘twins’. He even celebrated his 60th birthday last month.

“And we are 20 years married in August,” says Helen.

“I couldn’t believe that we got Francis back. We made it!”

And the Murphy family will never forget the support they got along the way.

“Having the haven of Brú Columbanus was just invaluable while Francis was in hospital for over five months. It was just wonderful to be able to be near him.”

They are keen to give back to those who helped them during such a difficult time.

“I’m planning a fund-raiser for Brú Columbanus in the autumn where people will be asked to give the gift of their ‘presence’, taking a friend or neighbour, out for a coffee or lunch and to donate €4 to Brú Columbanus. It will be good to give something back.”


Geraldine McCarthy.
Geraldine McCarthy.

Another person who knows the valuable support provided by Brú Columbanus, is Geraldine McCarthy, from Rosscarbery.

Geraldine says Brú Columbanus provides peace of mind for the families with loved ones in hospital long-term.

“When my dad got pneumonia he had to go to hospital and he was there for a month,” says Geraldine, of her father Felix, McCarthy.

“I stayed in Brú Columbanus which is a fantastic facility in a great location. The house is very well thought out and the kitchen facilities that are available to everyone are brilliant.

“It was great to meet others who had loved ones in hospital and who could be nearby so that they could see the patients regularly.”

Close friends told Geraldine about Brú Columbanus, which is open to families who have loved ones in hospital in Cork or in the hospice.

“I didn’t know how long dad was going to be in hospital, or how long the situation would last, so it was wonderful to be able to be close by,” says Geraldine.

“I applied to stay at Brú Columbanus and when I got a call inviting me to come and stay; I brought my bits and pieces there. I was able to go to visit dad in CUH every day.”

Geraldine says her dad was delighted she could come and see him on a daily basis.

“The elderly need that bit more support,” says Geraldine.

“Dad made a great recovery and he lived to celebrate his 90th birthday.

“His recovery was aided by the fact that he knew I was nearby and that I could go back and forth to him.

“I’m indebted to the staff and to the volunteers at Brú Columbanus. Everything is run so smoothly, providing peace of mind to family members.

“It is great to have one’s own space, away from what can sometimes be the chaos of a hospital environment. It is good to relax and to be able to chat to other family members.

“Brú Columbanus is a wonderful facility that we have in Cork. It provides a welcome oasis in a crisis.”

 *Brú Columbanus is an independent charity, offering free accommodation to the relatives of seriously ill patients in Cork hospitals or in the hospice. It depends on fundraisers to keep up the estimated running costs, €500,000 is needed annually.

* The 35th Ring of Kerry Cycle in aid of Brú Columbanus takes place on Saturday, July 7. For more or call 021 4345754.

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