A lifeline for local cancer patients: Altnagelvin Hospital’s Sperrin Unit

Staff from the Sperrin Unit, (l-r) Caroline Oates, Manager, Jennifer McLaughlin, staff nurse, Tara McIntyre, Sister, and staff nurses, Emma Gallagher, Bernie Green, Coralainn McLaughlin, Lorraine Tease, Roisin Roddy, and Julie McHugh.
Staff from the Sperrin Unit, (l-r) Caroline Oates, Manager, Jennifer McLaughlin, staff nurse, Tara McIntyre, Sister, and staff nurses, Emma Gallagher, Bernie Green, Coralainn McLaughlin, Lorraine Tease, Roisin Roddy, and Julie McHugh.
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Every year hundreds upon hundreds of local people get the devastating news that they have cancer and will require treatment.

For those who have never gone through it, the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty over what lies ahead can be terrifying. At the Sperrin Unit in Altnagelvin Hospital, staff make a special effort to take away some of that fear as soon as a new patient arrives.

Caroline Oates, Manager of the Sperrin Unit.

Caroline Oates, Manager of the Sperrin Unit.

And the frequently expressed gratitude of, and donations from, patients who have come through the other side after chemotherapy treatment bears testament to the massive impact staff there have made to the cancer journeys of thousands of local people.

With the opening of the new North West Cancer Centre’s Radiotherapy Unit, treatment services have just taken a massive leap forward locally.

The new centre will link into the existing Sperrin Unit, and we spoke to Sperrin Manager, Caroline Oates, about its development over the years.

Caroline has played a central role in the evolution of chemotherapy treatment at Altnagelvin, from her previous work in setting up and managing cancer trials to leading the team at the Sperrin today in the treatment of adults diagnosed with cancers of the lung, breast prostate, colorectal and haematology.

A native of Glasgow, Caroline’s reasons for moving to the North West of Ireland were twofold: “It was the job. It was a great opportunity and I was ready for the challenge. Also my sister lives in Donegal, we’re very close. I was missing her and she was missing me and she had just had a baby so I got this opportunity and took it. Before that I was working in the Betson Oncology Centre in Glasgow in Cancer Education. That was a great learning curve, I was educating nurses, but I missed the patient contact. I was trained in Scotland. I worked in the Haematology Unit when I qualified and I remained there for several years and I ended up getting the Sister’s post in haematology before I came here to open the cancer clinical trials.”

Caroline arrived at Altnagelvin Hospital nine years ago and said she was “delighted to be given that opportunity” to develop the first cancer trials.

“At that time the patients that were going into cancer clinical trials had to go to Belfast to access a trial, so I was charged with setting up here,” she said. “Now we have two trial nurses in post. We constantly have patients coming in for trials and with the Radiotherapy Unit there will be radiotherapy trials as well. It’s growing all the time.

“Then the manager’s post came up in the Chemotherapy Unit and everybody said ‘Are you mad? Why would you want to get back into managing?’ but I did always enjoy working hands on with the haematology and oncology patients. I manage the chemo unit but I would also be in there hands on, administering chemotherapy. That’s my choice. I think I surprised the staff when I first went in there, they were probably thinking ‘what’s she doing?’ but that’s the way I have always operated.”

The new Sperrin Unit opened five years ago, but last year it was refurbished and capacity increased to 25 treatment chairs and six single rooms. “There are days we are seeing 35 to 40 patients, just in the last year it’s almost double.

“We have a great team in the Chemotherapy Unit, great nurses and I like to be there leading my team. Every one of them is committed to giving the best journey to these patients that they can, each and every one, and anything we can do to make it that wee bit easier, we will do it. I think cancer nursing is a type of nursing that is either for you or it isn’t. That’s just the way it is so each and every one of them are committed to working with patients with cancer.

“I also have a great line manager who is very supportive. So we have an outreach service; we have pre-assessment nurses, we are the first in the province to have that; we have the telephone triage line, which I know they have in Belfast but ours is slightly different and there’s going to be two nurses manning that now, so we have grown massively.

“Last year we started treating some of what we call our ‘Long Day Treatments’ and that was patients who would have traditionally gone to Belfast, leaving the house maybe 6.30 am, 7.00 am and maybe getting home at 10pm in the evening, every three weeks. When someone is sick that journey is the last thing you would want to do. When we took the Long Day patients, the first lady she left the house at 7.45 am and got home at 5.30 pm. It is great for the people of Derry and the west to have that facility here.”

Caroline said that there is often a misconception that cancer treatment centres are terribly bleak places. “People think a Chemotherapy Unit, ‘oh my goodness it must be very difficult working there,’ but it’s a very happy place,” she said. “We have really good relations with our patients, we have good laughs in there some days. It’s not a sad place, it’s actually quite an upbeat place to work and I have met some of the most amazing people in my career both in Glasgow and here.”

With regards to patients, she said that the initial concerns are the fear of the unknown. “If someone has never had this kind of treatment before they don’t know what to expect and people have their own ideas of what they think it’s going to be like, so the first thing is to try and reassure them.

“What I like to do when they come up for their education with the pre-assessment nurses, is let them have a look around and see it’s actually a nice area. It just takes that kind of fear out of it. Once they get the first treatment in, there is such a relief. Most people would be on the internet researching. You are not going to stop people from doing that, but we would just say to people to be mindful that everything that is on the internet might not necessarily be correct, or applicable to their condition. The likes of the Macmillan site, we would steer patients towards that.”

Caroline said that cancer treatments were advancing with the result that the prognosis for many patients was now much better.

“There’s a lot of targeted therapies being used with really good results. Where we might have treated patients with one or two lines of treatment we can now treat them with three or four, so its advancing all the time.”

And the patient is very much at the heart of the Sperrin.

“This is their journey, and what they are facing is their difficulty to face and all we can do is be as supportive as we can be, and do whatever we can to make it easier,”

And that support is appreciated if the steady flow of donations and ‘thank-yous’ is anything to go by.

“The generosity of the people of Derry is brilliant. There’s never a week goes by that we don’t get donations.”

Among the more high-profile donors was Snow Patrol donating £20,000 to the Sperrin Unit a few years back.

“We were invited to their concert in Belfast. I was a fan before, in fact I was playing their music coming into work one morning and then later that day got the phone call. We got a donation of ten iPads from a former patient. Things like that can make such a difference,” concluded Caroline.