Northern Ireland news

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson fears cancer surgery may be cancelled over strike action

East Antrim Alliance Assembly member Stewart Dickson
Seanín Graham

AN assembly member with oesophageal cancer who is due to undergo an eight-hour operation next week has said he is fearful the surgery will not go ahead due to industrial action.

East Antrim Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson (68) is scheduled to go into Belfast City Hospital next Sunday ahead of the potentially "curative" procedure the following day during which part of his oesophagus will be removed.

The Greenisland man has undergone 65 days of chemotherapy treatment since his shock diagnosis in July.

However, following the Belfast health trust's cancellation of 10,000 appointments, day procedures and surgeries - which it linked to Unison's strike action and industrial action by the Royal College of Nursing - Mr Dickson said he is "waiting by the phone" to hear whether his operation will be affected.

The MLA attended his pre-operative assessment with his consultant and anaesthetist last week where a December 9 date was confirmed - the day he turns 69.

"The anaesthetist told me this was a major operation and could last between six to eight hours. This particular cancer is treated with chemotherapy first then surgery. My tumour has shrunk and the prognosis is good - this operation could be curative," he said.

Read More: Health trust chiefs warn of 'significant risk' to patient safety due to escalating industrial action

"But since last Friday's announcement, my worry is that I have psyched myself up for this surgery and I don't know if it's going to happen. And if it doesn't go ahead, my fear is, does this mean I am going to go backward in terms of my illness?

"There is also a 'window' in terms of completing your chemotherapy and having the operation. Next Monday would mark six weeks since my chemo treatment ended and my pre-op also deemed me fit. The timing of this surgery is important.

Unison's healthcare workers are striking over pay and staffing. Picture by Mark Marlow

"If this is how I feel, what about the other 1,200 people who are going through the same mental and physical turmoil waiting to hear about their appointments?"

The Belfast health trust has asked patients not to telephone it "due to extraordinary circumstances and the large number of people affected", with the trust instead writing to patients with "rescheduled appointments"

The trust has also urged people to check for updates online.

Read More:  10,000 patients affected after Belfast Health Trust cancels outpatient appointments and planned surgery

Mr Dickson said the crisis had created huge uncertainty, especially for vulnerable people

"If I was a person living in the country on my own I may not know how to go about accessing online information," he said.

Describing himself as a "life-long trade unionist" after working for more than 30 years in the Labour Relations Agency, the MLA added that he supported the trade unions' demands for safe staffing and better pay.

"The buck stops with the two big parties - we need Stormont back. The reality is that we always required political intervention to resolve this dispute," he said.

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