Islander makes history when treated in west's first heart ambulance


"TOWARDS the end of January, an Aer Arann plane flew a special mission from the Aran islands to the mainland 20 minutes away, carrying a man who had suffered a heart attack. When he arrived at the tiny Minna airport in Inverin, Connemara, he did not have to lose precious time being transported 20 miles to Galway's University College Hospital before cardiac treatment could begin.

He was swiftly transferred to a coronary care unit on wheels where Dr Colette Siefer and a highly trained ambulance team immediately began the appropriate treatment as they sped to the hospital. Though he was hardly aware of it, the Aran islander made history by being the first patient to be treated in the first such ambulance put into service in the west of Ireland. He's now well on his way to recovery, though it might have been a different story if the full panoply of cardiac treatment had not been available to meet the plane.

In a way, it's extraordinary that the west is only now getting a coronary care ambulance when you consider that the incidence of heart disease - Ireland's biggest killer - is higher in the west thank "in the rest of the country, according to Dr Kieran Daly, consultant cardiologist at University College Hospital, Galway.

The new heart ambulance service is a pilot one, operating in Galway city and within a radius of about 20 miles. Since that first patient, nine other heart attack sufferers have received on the spot treatment in the special ambulance which carries a doctor and is equipped with the necessary equipment and drugs to combat the early stages of the attack.

The arrival of the ambulance is largely due to the work of the west's own cardiology foundation, Croi, which since 1985 has been involved in raising funds for heart care in the area. In recent years, the foundation, whose chief executive is Mr Neil Johnson, has raised some £2 million and, working close with the Western Health Board, has helped to develop a wide range of cardiac care.

One of Croi's major achievements has been the establishment of a catheter laboratory at UCHG which has enabled 800 procedures for investigating and alleviating various heart conditions to be carried out every year. The laboratory has the most sophisticated diagnostic facility outside Dublin or Cork. Before it was set up, patients had to travel to Dublin for diagnosis and treatment.

Dr Daly and Croi would like to revive the practice of open heart surgery in Galway. According to Dr Daly, some 1,600 patients are awaiting heart surgery in the Republic at any given time. About a quarter of this figure is in Croi's catchment area. In the early days of by pass surgery, Dr Des Kneafsey performed many operations at Galway's Merlin Park Hospital, but heart patients in the west must now travel to Dublin for their by passes.

"It would be a totally logical step to have heart surgery available in Galway in terms of providing cardiac care for the whole country," says Dr Daly. "Heart surgeons in Dublin agree that this is the most appropriate way to go." It would entail the provision of a dedicated operating theatre in Galway, at least one surgeon and a number of specialised technicians. Proposals for such a development have been sent to the Minister for Health over the years. The incumbent, Mr Michael Noonan, is aware of them and may take action.