THE ‘Belfast or Blind’ bus, which brings people from Cork to Belfast for cataract surgery, is approaching its 100th journey, so questions are being asked as to why it is still necessary.
The bus, which was started by Independent TD Michael Collins and Kerry Independent Danny Healy Rae in 2017, has brought more than 90 busloads of people to Belfast.
There, they have the surgery performed under the cross-border directive.
Speaking to The Echo, Mr Collins said that the service is helping to reduce the anxiety and fear of people who have been waiting years for the surgery in the Republic.
“People are waiting three to five years. The system hasn’t improved at all,” Mr Collins said.
“We’ve run three buses up in the last three weeks, so I’m looking after them as best I can and I’ve more bookings in July and another one later in June.
“We’re heading for our 92nd bus and I’d say we’ve looked after about 3,500 people,” he said.
He said there is “a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes” to make the service run smoothly and that those who use it are predominantly elderly people, some of whom have not travelled outside their own parish.
“They’re taken straight by bus to the hotel and when they drop their bags, a taxi comes and takes them to the consultation,” Mr Collins said.
“They’re back within an hour to the hotel, free until the next morning, and the next morning, after their breakfast, a taxi takes them from the front of the hotel and down for the 25-minute procedure.
“After an hour of recovery, the bus is outside to take them home.”
Speaking about the “hardship and misery” the wait times are causing for the elderly, advocate Paddy O’Brien said that he finds it “difficult to understand” why people have to wait years for a procedure that takes 20 minutes.
“It’s not asking too much of the HSE to inform all those on waiting lists of how long they have to wait for this cataract surgery,” he said.
“People on these lists are denied any social activities and are nervous to go to public places. Trips to the daycare centre or bingo are all things of the past and a procedure that only takes 20 minutes is so important to the aged and will help these people who are now affected by years of waiting to return to a normal lifestyle again.”
Echoing Mr O’Brien’s comments, Mr Collins said: “All you need is a clean room to be equipped for these surgeries and that can be done in Bantry General Hospital, Mallow General Hospital, and in Cork, obviously.
“All they need is a one-day-a-month clinic in Bantry and it would clear the list in no time, but they’re constantly making it look as if there has to be a building worth hundreds of millions.
“Nothing is happening on the ground and people are being left behind, instead of what they do in other countries, where they have a clean room with staff and get in and get doing it.”
Speaking to The Echo, a spokesperson for the South/South West Hospital Group said that in collaboration with its 10 hospitals, the Group has undertaken “substantial work to address waiting lists and manage the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on overall activity”.
“The group has generated additional capacity through a variety of means, such as insourcing (out-of-hours capacity), use of the private hospital arrangement and National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) funding, for example, additional endoscopy lists to reduce waiting times for patients, and hospitals are utilising new ways of working, such as Telehealth for outpatient appointments, where appropriate.”
The spokesperson said that works are in progress on the construction of a second ophthalmology theatre at South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital (SIVUH), which will “increase capacity for cataract surgery”. It is due for completion in the fourth quarter of this year.