There are very few Waterford natives who haven’t had some connection with St Patrick’s Hospital in their lifetime. Perhaps they’ve visited an elderly patient who was receiving the wonderful care and attention for which the hospital’s staff are so renowned. Or maybe they themselves have been the grateful recipient of respite care at the John’s Hill facility after an illness.

With demand for a bed at St Pat’s constantly on the increase, many people’s connection these days is more to the hospital’s waiting list – I reckon hundreds of people make representations every year to the facility itself, local politicians, HSE officials and anyone else they think might be able to help them secure a bed for a loved one.

My grandmother spent the last years of her life as a long term patient of Our Lady’s Ward at St Pat’s. Though they were often sad times for all of us, I recall with great affection some of the staff who cared for her during her years there. Given the nature of her debilitating illness, by Jesus were we glad of them on so many occasions. I remember the worry and heartache of my mother and her siblings when they were trying to obtain a bed in the hospital for my Nan. Although moving her from her home was never an ideal situation, the relief they all felt when they realised how comfortable and safe she was in Our Lady’s Ward was palpable. If any reader has experienced likewise they will undoubtedly understand my anger and total indignation that the bed capacity at St Patrick’s is to be reduced by almost 16% by this July. Once again, the Government is attempting to penny pinch by hitting the most vulnerable in our society.

The HSE’s proposed closure of St Brigid’s Ward at St Pats has ruffled quite a few feathers around town, despite promises from the Executive that the hospital is not being shut down. Already, the ward is not taking admissions and plans are being made to accommodation existing patients elsewhere in the hospital.

Members of the Friends of St Patrick’s charity are understandly up in arms over the news. They say they’ve done huge amounts of work upgrading St Brigid’s ward in recent years, spending €400,000 on the hospital since the charity was founded and €100,000 on specific remedial works in St Brigid’s ward during the past two years, including the installation of a fire wall. The HSE says it’s not appropriate to have heavily dependent patients on an upper floor because of health and safety risks should an evacuation be necessary. The Friends of St Patrick’s, however, argue that almost all private nursing homes in the Waterford area are two-storey and a lift is in place at St Brigid’s to facilitate the patients.

The to-ing and fro-ing continues. A spokesperson for the HSE has said the long-term plan was always to replace St Brigid’s with a 50-bed community nursing unit, to be funded under the Government’s Capital Plan. A site investigation is ongoing and the HSE says it’s a top priority to proceed with this unit, hence in the current economic climate it’s not appropriate to invest further funds in the ward when the ultimate plan is to close it anyway. Then why did they allow so much money to be spent on the ward all along?

Friends of St Patrick’s say no consultation has taken place with them regarding the closure. If the reason for said closure is a straight-forward health and safety issue that needs to be addressed (vis-à-vis concerns about evacuation in the event of a fire), they reckon they can come up with the money necessary to save the beds. Problem solved, no? Perhaps it could be so simply sorted, if it weren’t for the fact that the St Brigid’s closure is one of a series of announcements of cuts in healthcare throughout the country. Let’s cut straight to the bone – the economy has taken a nosedive and the HSE must make savings wherever possible.

St Brigid’s bed capacity has been reduced from 30 three years ago to its current 19 – figures that mightn’t seem all that significant when reading them but are a hell of a big deal when you’re waiting on a bed. If these 19 beds go, does it mean the beginning of the end of the hospital itself? By July the hospital will be down to 100 or so beds and I can’t help but wonder what cutbacks are coming next.