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Meet Comfort for Chemo: A small charity with huge ambition 

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By Chris Davies

Sometimes you cross paths with a person that is so impressive, you can’t help but be taken aback by their determination, courage and drive, but how often is it that you meet two such people in the same day? 

Well that is what happened to me last Saturday morning after meeting Mary Fitzgerald and Bríd O’Connor of Comfort for Chemo Kerry. While the pair will probably curse me for saying it, they are both remarkable women who deserve a huge amount of credit for playing their part in getting the charity to where it is today.

Experience

Mary’s background is in nursing. She has spent the majority of her career looking after cancer patients and their families. She currently works in a managerial role within University Hospital Kerry. The pressures of working in a HSE setting  at the moment would warrant an article in itself but I was meeting with Mary on Saturday to discuss other business, mainly her role as Chairperson of ‘Comfort for Chemo, a relatively new charity with huge ambitions. Mary and her teams vision is to create stand-alone, state of the art chemotherapy treatment facility for the people of Kerry and beyond. With a wealth of experience at the coalface of cancer treatment, she has seen first-hand the difficult journeys that patients and their families go through following a cancer diagnosis and her passion for the project is clear in the way she talks about their plans. They say that nursing is a vocation and not a job, and having met with Mary, I can testify to this.

Mary was joined by Bríd O’Connor. A proud Ardshanavooley lady who is now raising her young family in Firies. Bríd is a History teacher by trade but she is also the patient advocate for the charity. Having had many personal battles with the illness, you would struggle to find a more appropriate person to speak on behalf of those diagnosed or recovering from cancer. Bríd’s cancer diagnosis came in March of 2018, just 15 months after her mother was diagnosed. Tragically, her mother’s illness was deemed terminal and she passed away in 2020. For a time they were both patients on the same chemo ward.  

“Looking back it was such a difficult time, but it gave me a dual perspective. I knew what it was like to be the patient and equally as a daughter of a patient sitting on the sidelines. This really drove me to seek better services for patients and their families” 

Bríd underwent TCH,  an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy which combines different medicines. Her treatment involved six cycles of chemo, one every three weeks, and no sooner had she recovered from one bout, she was heading back to UHK for the next. 

Mary explained that chemo treatment takes everything out of the patient…

“The treatment is toxic, you are basically using powerful chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in your body, it’s just horrible. I can still remember my first experience on a chemotherapy ward as a young nurse, I was doing night shift in St. James’s Hospital in Dublin and the patients were just vomiting all night, it takes everything out of you”

Bríd explained that as a cancer survivor you are never fully out of the woods but she is in good health now and wants to give back through Comfort for Chemo. 

Giving Back

“Having gone through it myself, I understand why a stand-alone facility like this is so badly needed in Kerry. While I was very grateful for the brilliant care I received, the current facilities at UHK are sub-standard. My belief is that you don’t run out of a burning fire, but you come back with pails of water. So that’s why I am here, to ensure we get the very best cancer care facilities”.

Mary explained that in 2001, 831 patients were treated in a 6 bed ward in UHK, a setting that could only be described as a “Shoe Box”. Last year 5,565 people were treated for cancer in UHK, a six fold increase. The chemotherapy unit was moved around over the past few years and during covid they had to share a space with palliative care patients. While they were grateful to be facilitated by the palliative care team at a difficult time for everyone in healthcare, it was far from the ideal setting for patients to receive treatment.

“When I first started out in cancer care there was just one treatment for the disease, and it either worked or it didn’t. Thankfully cancer screening has improved dramatically since then, and there are many different treatments now. Prostate and breast cancers in particular can be effectively managed and have a good survival rate. However, with such a large increase in the numbers of people we care for now, the facilities are not adequate” Mary explained.

Plans

When the pair told me the news that they had just received the architects plans for the new building on the grounds of UHK, they could be forgiven for getting a bit emotional, it was clear to see how much it meant to them both. The road to this point had been bumpy at times and they had many difficult conversations during covid in relation to what was realistically achievable, but it is a testament to the ladies uncompromising nature that the charity rode the storm and is now finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

The new facility is modelled on Scandinavian Healthcare, which is widely regarded as one of the most progressive in the world. The stand alone, state of the art building is designed with privacy and dignity to the fore, something Brid is steadfast about given her own personal experience.

“When I was going through my treatment and recovery I was walking through the main hospital wards. Kerry is not a small county but everyone knows everyone and I would often bump into people going in and out. It was difficult having to explain to people who know me why I was there. There was one time I bumped into an old school friend, she was being discharged after giving birth to her child and I was going in for another bout of chemo. It is hard to explain the emotions that brought up for me”.

Mary also explained that the new facility will have its own compounding unit where all the drug treatments are made on site. UHK currently have to buy in the drugs from elsewhere and it can sometimes lead to delays.  

It will also provide for counselling and support rooms which will not only support patients before and during treatment but also provide aftercare support. 

“What many people don’t realise is that after you recover from cancer, there is an associated trauma attached, and it can take time to get over that. Our new facility will have a full time ‘survivorship  nurse specialist’ and counselling support to help patients recover from the emotional aftermath of the illness” Mary explains.

Fundraising

Mary and Brid explained that the money raised to this point is ‘bricks and mortar’ and the next round of fundraising planned is to kit the facility out. We joked that Brid is the ‘Franc’ of the interior design project as she is adamant that they won’t be ‘cheaping out’ or taking shortcuts just to get it done. 

“We have one chance to do it so we are adamant that it has to be done right and to the highest standards”

If you haven’t figured already, Bríd is not the kind of woman to just talk the talk, she is walking the walk too having raised over €20,000 herself through a book she wrote called “Spark”. Prompted by the loss of her mother and her own journey through cancer, she wanted to find stories that others can find comfort in and draw hope from in your lowest hour. The book is a beautiful collection of conversations with many familiar faces around Kerry including Billy Keane, Louise Galvin, and Don O’Neill amongst others. The incredible contributors to “Spark” share stories of grief, serious-illness, life altering events and challenges. Each contributor discloses what resets them.

Mary explains that over the past few years they have been lucky to get incredible support from the most amazing fundraisers and Killarney has given generously to the cause.

“Last year, Killarney local Karl McMahon and his Killarney Celtic led committee organised a memorial charity match between Celtic and Kerry FC on the 10th anniversary of the his late friend and club legend John Doyle. They raised a fantastic €45,000 for us and we are so grateful to everyone who supported the event”.

Mary recalls a much more modest donation after covid which really moved her, 

“As you know, during covid, everything shut down. An elderly lady came to us with a donation as things opened back up again. She told me she used to get her hair done every couple of weeks and when her salon closed down during covid she began to put that bit of money aside for us. That is the kind of support and generosity in Kerry that gives us the belief that we can deliver this much needed facility”

Did you know that 1 in 2 people will have a cancer diagnosis at some stage in their life and that in Ireland more than 40,000 new cases of cancer or related tumours are diagnosed each year? With that in mind Comfort for Chemo have a big fundraiser coming up on February 10th. ‘A celebration of love’ is a dinner dance which has been fittingly planned around Valentine’s Day to celebrate all of the people who have used the service, are currently patients going through chemotherapy, those of whom have finished their treatment and those who cannot be present but will be remembered and paid tribute to on the night. With music provided by the popular Kerry band - Truly Diverse and DJ Chirs Shortt it promises to be a great night at the Rose hotel in Tralee. Mary has also hinted at a few special guests on the night and an amazing prize for one lucky guest on the night which they will be announcing news on very soon.

Tickets can be bought here.
https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/celebration-of-love-tickets-749529582157

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30 years of Innisfallen Island MassThe annual special concelebrated Mass on Innisfallen Island takes place next week.

Next Friday (June 21), members of the public are invited to attend the Mass taking place at 6.30pm. Now in its 30th year, the Mass was originally an idea by […]

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Next Friday (June 21), members of the public are invited to attend the Mass taking place at 6.30pm.

Now in its 30th year, the Mass was originally an idea by Geoffrey O’Donoghue who sadly died four years after it began.

“There was an Augustinian Monastery on Innisfallen Island and the people, including priests and monks and they say Brian Boro, went out there to study. The lake, Lough Lein is called ‘The Lake of Learning’,” said his wife Mary who carries on the tradition in his memory.

“My husband Geoffrey was a descendent of the O’Donoghues and he wanted to have Mass on the island. The O’Donoghues built Ross Castle and owned the lands and the lake surrounding it which was later donated by John McShane to the people of Killarney. He [Geoffrey] asked one of the friars and one day he got a call from the OPW that there would be a plaque unveiled to John McShane and they asked if the Mass could coincide with it. It was attended by Sr Pauline, John McShane’s daughter.”

She added that all the public are welcome to attend. Boats, which will have a nominal fee to cover their costs, will be carrying passengers out from 4pm onwards.

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Photo of “hidden gem” wins Camera Club’s latest competition

A photograph of one of Killarney’s hidden beauty spots was deemed the winner of Killarney Camera Club’s most recent competition. Th standard was high throughout all categories but in the […]

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A photograph of one of Killarney’s hidden beauty spots was deemed the winner of Killarney Camera Club’s most recent competition.

Th standard was high throughout all categories but in the Novice category, Iryna Halaieva’s photograph of O’Sullivan’s Cascade was deemed the winner.

“A waterfall is my favourite waterbody and long exposure is my favourite photographic technique,” she said. “I do my best to have as many waterfalls as possible in my photo collection. I heard a lot about O’Sullivan’s Cascade and wanted to visit that hidden gem of Kerry. So, shortly before our club competition I went with a friend to Tomies Wood to photograph it. It was a dream come true for me.”

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