Grantham Hospital’s breast cancer unit is one-of-a-kind, made possible by donations totalling tens of thousands of pounds from the people of the town.
Yet just weeks after the ‘Emerald Suite’ opened in March 2014, the unit was reduced to being used for just a fraction of its capability. And it seems this is unlikely to change any time soon.
The crux of the problem, according to the trust which manages the county’s hospitals, is a shortage of radiologists to fill an empty post. This means a ‘fast track’ system created with the help of a team of passionate volunteers and fund-raisers – both financially and in design – is redundant as there is now no diagnostic facility in Grantham.
This has meant that patients requiring fast-track treatment to deal with their illness have had to go to Lincoln or Boston Pilgrim hospitals. Patients can be screened at the Grantham unit, but without a specialist radiologist on site this has slowed down the process.
This is disappointing to volunteers like Jackie Whatley, who helped to transform the unit from cold and soulless to one which offered comfort and was re-designed to ensure patients could go from diagnosis to treatment and support quickly, without needing to go through waiting rooms filled with people.
And no-one knows better than Jackie how important this is, as she has twice been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her experience spurred her on to raise thousands of pounds over the years as part of the town’s Breast Cancer Support Group, her dedication securing her a Local Hero Award in the Journal’s 2013 community awards.
Trust is putting 60-mile journeys on somebody to go to Lincoln or Boston when all that money has been spent on this beautiful mammogram machine in Grantham costing thousands of pounds.Jackie Whatley, fund-raiser
Jackie, of Wensleydale Close, Grantham, said: “I feel so proud to have raised all this money. My family has raised well over £20,000.
“I’m just mortified that people who are recalled for mammograms can’t be seen in Grantham. If you get a recall it makes you feel sick and the thought of putting 60-mile journeys on somebody to go to Lincoln or Boston when all that money has been spent on this beautiful machine in Grantham costing thousands of pounds is awful.”
Supporters of the Emerald Suite and Grantham MP Nick Boles met with staff from the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust in the department on Friday to demand to know what action is being taken to bring the unit back to full capacity.
Senior business manager Paul Hogg told Mr Boles that the trust faces difficulty recruiting a radiologist because many people choose to train as radiologists in other disciplines and few want to come to Lincolnshire and instead work in the cities.
The trust hires staff from abroad, but quite often there is a language barrier and it can take a long time for the necessary paperwork to come through before a foreign national is allowed to work in the country.
Trust staff were quick to point out that the future of the unit was secure, but it was still suffering from the lack of a consultant radiologist.
Andy Brammer, head of radiology at the trust, said: “We really do feel we have been doing everything we can to address the issue and we are being very creative in how we do that.”
Although Mr Brammer insists ULHT has taken steps to fill the post, several volunteers and those working closely with staff in the unit say greater steps should have been taken.
Jenny Hubbard has been a volunteer for 17 years, using her own experience to support patients seen in Grantham. She told the Journal: “We were told the radiologist gave her notice three months prior to leaving, but we know the post wasn’t advertised until two or three weeks before she left. So what conclusion can we come to? It looks like the trust isn’t trying very hard and we’re worried the Emerald Suite will close and everything we’ve paid for will go to Lincoln or Boston.”
Arthur Whatley, Jackie’s husband, told Mr Boles: “It has taken many years of hard work and dedication for the Emerald Suite to come into existence for the people in Grantham and surrounding areas.
“Some of the earliest locations in Grantham Hospital for the breast cancer clinic have been a small room, no bigger than a cupboard with the waiting room being a corridor, being held next to the skin clinic, within the X-ray department, and lastly the out-patients’. None of these areas gave any place for a patient to go when given bad news. It was a case of seeing the consultant, then straight into the waiting room area full of people.
“The Emerald Suite was open with full services including a fast-track clinic - consultants, breast cancer nurse and nursing team, plus the help of Grantham Breast Cancer Support Group and others.
“The suite has been set out with areas that are bright and colourful, waiting rooms are well laid out, the consulting rooms have adjoining examination rooms for privacy. There is also a private room where patients can be taken when given bad news. Plus there is the benefit of having the mammograms done within the Emerald Suite. So all services are within one area for the benefit of patients and staff.”
Mr Boles said the Emerald Suite was an excellent facility at Grantham Hospital. He added: “We have a better facility here than in Lincoln. There is no move to close the whole unit. A lot of work has gone into the place and we want to use it, but we have clearly got to fix the the recruitment problem.”
A spokesman for ULHT reiterated that there is no plan to close the Emerald Suite.
She added: “The breast unit in Grantham is being used three or four days per week for breast screening. It is also used half-a-day per week for follow up mammography. We continue to have inpatient and day case surgery, family history clinics, consultant-led review clinics, and nurse-led clinics are held every day.
“Our diagnostic sessions used to be once a week and we have been unable to run these sessions without a radiologist. We are actively recruiting to the radiologist vacancy at the Grantham breast unit, but are experiencing difficulty to appoint a suitable candidate due to a national shortage of radiologists.”