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Community Spotlight: Billy O’ Sullivan keeping Killarney hearts healthy

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Over the coming weeks and months, I will be meeting will local charities, community groups and organisations that are having a positive impact on our community. In the first of our Community Spotlight series, I sat down with Billy O’ Sullivan, founder and chairman of HeartBeat Killarney, Kerry.

Nostalgia
Billy has a close affinity with the Killarney Advertiser, and we reckon his old shop was one of the very first local businesses to advertise with us. When I told Cormac (Killarney Advertiser Owner) I was meeting with Billy this week he had a few fond memories to share...

"Billy was one of our first advertisers but also was a key distributor. My earliest memories of being in the family business was delivering the advertiser to ‘Billy D.F.s’. Billy operated a well-oiled machine where we got to see, what we now know today as ‘just in time’ delivery. Billy knew his customers well and their movements. If we wanted to reach these customers, we needed to be into Billy on time every time with the correct amount and Billy would deliver. And he did, year after year. As I look back and pinpoint people who contributed to Advertiser’s story, I can safely say that Billy D.F. has a few chapters."

Close Call
It was many years later in the early 2000’s when the idea to set up a voluntary cardiac support group for Killarney and indeed Kerry was brought about. Billy was recovering from a triple bypass operation and was undergoing a six-week rehabilitation program in UHK. A few months prior to the operation he had started to get pains in his wrists and went to the doctor for a check-up. His aches turned out to be one of the lesser-known symptoms of cardiac issues and he was referred to a cardiologist where the true extent of the issues was laid bare. An ECG and other tests showed several blockages which were life threatening. As Billy says himself, “I was a brewing heart attack”.

During his time in hospital, he became friendly with a nurse called Kay Karim. They floated the idea of setting up a support group for locals who have heart disease or who have are at risk of having a cardiac event or stroke. Within weeks, HeartBeat was born, a testament to how much the pair cared about the issue. While registered as a charity Billy describes them as a group of “cardiac patients helping other cardiac patients”.

HeartBeat alive and well
Fast forward two decades, Billy and the group are going from strength to strength. Over that time they have built up an impressive network of healthcare professionals and experts that have educated both themselves and the many other service users. 

The group meets once per month and works hard to bring in expert speakers on a range of matters relating to medication advice, exercise, diet and stress reduction.

Throughout the years Billy has seen that medication advise is a key support they offer.

“When you get a bit older in life you can develop an adverse attitude towards taking medication, but when you engage with HeartBeat you can take advantage of the expert medical advice, as well as receiving first-hand experience from others in the group. The latter can be very reassuring for people”.

“The issue with cardiac medication compared with other medication is that you won’t notice a physical benefit when you take them, but if you don’t take them, cardiac health issues can be exacerbated”. 

As mentioned above, another key support that HeartBeat offers its service users is around stress reduction. Stress is one of the most common contributory factors for Cardiac issues. When I think about getting older and heading into retirement, I think less work and more leisure time but speaking to Billy this week I learned that there are many worries later in life that can contribute to poor cardiac health.

“We put a big focus on the day-to-day stressors that can impact our health. Recently we had a solicitor who talked to our group about making wills and advice around inheritance. We had an expert in to talk about new laws around the power of attorney. While on the face of it, these issues may seem trivial, they can cause a lot of stress. If we can help alleviate some of that stress, then we know we are having a positive impact on their heart health”.

Looking ahead
After more than 20 years Billy is not ready to look back just yet, there is so much more he would like to achieve with HeartBeat. Two key areas he wants to address is making younger people (30+) more aware of their cardiac health, and also to remove the stigma around cardiac health.

On bringing the younger people along Billy had a great analogy:

“I liken managing our heart health to taking the car for an NCT. When we take our car for a test we check the air pressure in the tyres, we test the brakes and see how the engine is running. From the age of 30 people should begin to look at their health in this way too. A trip to the doctors for some bloods and some other routine checks can significantly reduce the risk later in life”.

Stigma around heart disease is something that Billy is all too familiar with too.

“Many people are afraid or embarrassed to talk about cardiac issues outside of a medical setting but through our monthly meetings we are changing that. Some people believe that they will be looked upon or treated differently by their peers if they are open about their health issues but speaking openly in a supportive environment is a great way to reduce stress”.

Billy worries about men in particular, who can sometimes be more dismissive when it comes to addressing health issues. HeartBeat ran a separate male and female clinic last year after recognising that some people may be more comfortable discussing their health amongst their own gender.  110 women showed up for the female clinic, while 32 men showed up for the male clinic. 

Although he admitted he would like to have seen more men he was delighted with the 32 men that did show up. 

“From that clinic, three men were identified as being at risk of cardiac issues which is a positive because they could then bring it to the attention of their doctor who could provide appropriate care. We ran a separate ‘pop-up’ blood pressure and pulse clinic at Dunne Stores pre-covid. One hundred and sixty-five people were tested. From that number, nine were told to mention their results the next time they visited their doctor, two were told to visit their GP within 3 days and one man was taken to a doctor and brought straight to hospital as he was at high risk. That last man was told he avoided a heart attack by days. That is the kind of situation that makes it all worthwhile”.

Fundraising & support
Heartbeat has 5 trustee’s and 8-10 active executive members who drive the many different events throughout the year. The highlight of the year is their ‘RID & BID’ fundraiser which is held in October. The Killarney Outlet Centre hosts the group who collect and sell unwanted gifts to the public. The event raises much needed funds for their different activities throughout the year. 

Billy is very grateful for the support they get from the local community, particularly local businesses. 

“There are so many people involved and helping us along the way. From the wonderful nurses like Anna O’ Donoghue who gives up her free time to run clinics, to the local business such as Dunnes Stores, C.R.L Oil, Sheahan’s Centra, who donate prizes for our different fundraisers. A special mention should go also go to Siobhan Linehan of Linehan's Bar, who has done so much fantastic work to fund local defibrillators in town”.

HeartBeat meets at the end of each month with their next meeting taking place on January 30 at 8pm in the Parish Centre next to the Church of the Resurrection, Park Road V93 WN32. The group are welcoming cardiologist Dr Haytham Makki, who will discuss all things relating to minding your hearth health. 

The group also has a Strutter Walk Group which meets at King’s Bridge (opposite St Mary’s Cathedral). The walking group is led by Kevin Murphy, a Phase 4 Cardiac Exercise Expert. The walks promise good chat, camaraderie, and a bit of craic.

For more information on the January 30 talk with Dr Haytham Makki call HeartBeat on 085 177 3910. If you are interested in joining the walking group, you can call Mairead on 087 681 8473.

Here are some of the main indicators of an impending heart attack. If you recognise any of these symptoms you should make your doctor aware:

Chest pain, shortness of breath, body pain, feeling lightheaded, sweating, nausea or vomiting, sense of anxiety, coughing or wheezing

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Valuable role of Kerry cancer support charity recognised nationally

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Cancer support charity Recovery Haven Kerry has been recognised for its vital role in supporting cancer patients and their families at a national ceremony in Dublin.

The renowned cancer support house was one of 16 such centres across Ireland that were presented with plaques to acknowledge their full membership of the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) Alliance – a group made up of voluntary and charity organisations delivering support services directly to cancer patients and their families. An additional 10 associate member charities were also honoured, including Kerry Cancer Support Group.

The Alliance advocates for, and supports, the development of integrated pathways between the cancer centres, acute hospitals, community cancer support services and primary care services. All members’ development is in line with the values of Sláintecare, seeking to provide assurance to healthcare professionals that these organisations are working to an agreed standard as set out in Best Practice Guidance published by the NCCP. 

Speaking after the ceremony, which was held at Dublin’s Farmleigh Estate, Recovery Haven Kerry Chairman, Tim McSwiney, explained that being compliant with the Best Practice Guidance for Community Cancer Support Centres is a true mark of quality. 

“It offers us a yardstick to measure what we are doing against the standards required. As a result, healthcare professionals have more confidence in referring people to our services. We are very proud to be a member of the Alliance,” he said.

Recovery Haven Kerry was represented at the event by centre manager, Gemma Fort and Client Services Co-Ordinator, Siobhan MacSweeney and were presented with their plaque by NCCP Lead for Cancer Survivorship, Louise Mullen, Clinical Lead for Psycho-Oncology Dr Helen Greally, and Minister of State at the Department of Health, Colm Burke. 

The event was also used as an opportunity to announce funding of €3m for the NCCP’s Alliance of Community Cancer Support Centres and Services through Budget 2024. The NCCP is currently in the process of distributing these funds which will directly and positively impact the delivery of services for patients and families nationally.

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‘More Precious Than Gold’ book launch

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At the official book launch of ‘More Precious Than Gold: My enduring connection with John McShain – the man who built Washington’ by Alice O’Neill-McLoughlin at Killarney House, was Minister of State for Nature, Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan, T.D.

Alice was born the eldest of eleven children into an Irish farming family in Rosbercon, New Ross, County Wexford. In 1978, she was awarded a scholarship from John McShain- the iconic builder, philanthropist, devout Catholic with Derry ancestry, responsible for many famous American landmarks, including the Jefferson Memorial and the Pentagon.

Her book records the lifelong personal correspondence Alice exchanged with ‘The Man Who Built Washington.’ His philanthropy extended to the Irish people in the bequeathing to the State of Killarney House and the surrounding thousands of acres incorporating the Lakes, Ross Castle, and Innisfallen Island. In 2019, Alice had the honour of inducting John McShain into the Irish America Hall of Fame in her home town of New Ross in the presence of his relatives from Philadelphia and Derry. This is a tale of altruism, of gratitude, of faith and of a life lived in the pursuit of excellence.

Alice also donated her treasured correspondence of letters from John McShain for the archive at Killarney House. Also in attendance were Members of the Ignatius A. O’Shaughnessy family, who was founder of The Globe Oil and Refining Company – and part of a consortium of wealthy American businessmen who were going to purchase the lakes of Killarney as a Country Club in the 1950’s.

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