Chest, heart and stroke charity marks 70 years of support

Since it started 70 years ago this month, Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke has been helping patients and their families to live with the most devastating diseases of the day. Joanne Sweeney spoke to stroke specialist Dr Enda Kerr about the charity's work and the challenges it faces

Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke has become a necessary healthcare partner for patients with chest, heart or stroke-related long-term conditions
Joanne Sweeney

IT'S been 70 years since Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke first came into existence and the world of medicine has changed dramatically since then.

As one of the region's leading charities, it has come a long way since it formed after 16 volunteers met in a borrowed office in William Street South in Belfast on June 14 1946.

It was then known as the Northern Ireland branch of the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis; a condition which has been virtually eradicated due to medical advances.

Now with a staff of 65 in its offices in Belfast and Derry and a cohort of 450 volunteers, the organisation has become a necessary ally and healthcare partner for patients with chest, heart or stroke long-term conditions.

The charity not only gives £300,000 of research grants each year to improve treatments, it provides health education to schoolchildren and a range of post-hospital support programmes.

And in its 71th year, the charity aims to work towards a vision of a Northern Ireland with no chest, heart or stroke illness.

Heart disease used to be the main cause of death in Northern Ireland for adults, particularly in men. Cancer has now overtaken that. But stroke is the second biggest killer of adults in Northern Ireland and the single biggest cause of disability in adults. Nearly 4,000 new cases of patients with stroke as the primary diagnosis were admitted to hospital in 2014/15.

Dr Enda Kerr has been the charity's stroke consultant for the past three years. He sits on its governance board along with Dr Joe Kidney, a consultant respiratory physician at the Mater Hospital in Belfast, Professor Paul Nicholls, a former cardiologist from the RVH, and chairman Professor Mahendra Varma, consultant cardiologist at the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen since 1981.

He says they work from He said: "We try to have 'cloud-type' thinking when we meet, like asking 'If you had a stroke yesterday or had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, what would you like the society that you are living in to look like?

"Our aim is to create a society where living with these diseases are easier, making healthy life choices is easier and where you are empowered and supported by our government to live a healthier lifestyle," he says.

Dr Kerr has noticed a worrying trend in that younger people – men and women under 40 – are having strokes and says that part of the cause is down to their taking drugs or legal highs.

"A lot of younger people, particularly younger men, are having strokes after taking cocaine or any number of the so-called legal highs," he warns. "And some of them are not aware that they have had any underlying heart or vascular disease.

"But we are ahead of the game here in Northern Ireland – there are 200,000 people here living with chest, heart and stroke illnesses today where the charity has a major impact on improving their lives.

"The thing about stroke is that if doesn't kill you, it leaves you massively disabled if it's not treated quickly. That's the huge devastation for people and that's what we are trying to change."

He admits that he used to think that the organisation was "a tea group for little old ladies who may have had a stroke 10 years ago" before he actually began to work with it.

"It's so much more than that," Dr Kerr added, "They do do what they do often over a cup of tea but it's so organised across Northern Ireland and it touches everyone. It's a very altruistic service and there's nothing behind it other than 'Let's try to make our population healthier'.

"The major elements to Chest Heart and Stroke are public information and health prevention, care and research. The public information side includes lobbying and advising and pushing for policy changes and development. We see over 2,000 schoolchildren each year so the health education outreach is very important.

"We also provide substantial care to people who have had a stroke, heart attack or who are living with COPD to provide the emotion, physical and practical help that they need."

Time is of the essence when treating someone who has had a stroke, Dr Kerr stresses.

"A staggering 1.9 million neurones are lost every minute during a stroke so literally every minute counts and that can be reversible if the patient can get treatment within the first three to four hours.

"When someone has a stroke, their world utterly changes. Chest Heart and Stroke provides longer-term services that support people well after they leave hospital and start recover and the changes in how they live their lives become more apparent.

The acute stroke specialist treatment in the first 48 hours of a patient of having a stroke is very costly and that's where the charity comes into its own after they leave hospital. They are a constant link and support for people, often for the rest of their lives.

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