Parents of local children with heart problems were given an early Christmas present this week with a ministerial announcement that could save cardiac services in Belfast.
The news of an independent assessment, to be carried out by three international clinicians, has been warmly welcomed by parents who consider it a “small victory and a ray of hope”.
Julie Greenaway, Armagh and Portadown family support coordinator with the Children’s Heartbeat Trust, was at Stormont for Monday’s announcement and described it as “surreal and very emotional”.
She said, “We have been campaigning for 18 months and it’s through pure people power that we have got to where we are now.
“This was the first time there was talk about maintaining surgery rather than closing it.”
The team will begin their assessment in January and complete it in June, after which it will be presented to Health Minister Edwin Poots and the Republic’s Health Minister James Reilly.
It is designed to address the needs of children and adults in relation to congenital cardiac surgery on the whole island.
Julie, whose son Lewis was born with just half a functioning heart, said, “From our point of view, it’s very hopeful that this was commissioned by both ministers on an all-island basis, and that the team are all experts in their field.
“The lead surgeon in Belfast retired on Monday and cardiac services were due to stop, but Our Lady’s in Dublin have pledged their support to allow surgery to continue in Belfast while the review is carried out.
“We are really pleased about that and it’s a big relief to parents whose children are scheduled for operations.”
Minister Poots said, “I believe that the assessment by this external team of experts will bring international best practice and fresh thinking to bear on this challenging issue... My key priority throughout this process has been, and remains, to ensure the delivery of a safe and sustainable service for these vulnerable children.”
Added Julie, “I personally have always had great faith in Edwin Poots and I feel assured that he will explore every avenue and will not leave any stone unturned in finding the best solution.”
She said the Minister paid a personal tribute to Portadown toddler Jake Flaherty who died in May, and Banbridge girl Grace McKee.
Added Julie, “All parents with sick children now have a bit of hope in their hearts after months of being in limbo. The focus has always been the children and their families.”