Opening epilepsy unit on a phased basis ‘is bonkers’

A young woman who lost all her teeth during epileptic seizures, and has undergone plastic surgery for facial injuries, has been refused funding for treatment abroad despite the fact that she cannot get it here.

Yvonne Brennan, 27, from Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, is one of more than 250 people waiting for assessment in one of the country’s two epilepsy monitoring units (EMUs), which remain closed.

The units, at Cork University Hospital (CUH) and Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, are crucial to understanding why people have epilepsy and how best it can be treated.

However neither is open. Beaumont was operating a two-bed unit but it closed for upgrading to a four-bed unit last June. It has remained closed. A second unit at CUH has yet to open. Close to €1m was invested between the two.

During the week, the HSE said it intended to open the Beaumont unit on a phased basis, beginning with two nurses instead of five. However, Prof Norman Delanty, director of the epilepsy programme at Beaumont, said this was “completely unsatisfactory”.

He said a unit that was supposed to operate around the clock, seven days a week, in order to monitor seizures in patients, with a view to making a definitive diagnosis of epilepsy, or deciding which candidates are suitable for surgery, could not fulfil its function unless fully staffed.

“The whole thing is just bonkers,” said the consultant neurologist, adding that it was a “waste of money” to open in the manner the HSE was proposing and an “absolute disaster” as far as patients were concerned. Many of these included people with an intellectual disability, he said, whose epilepsy was completely under-managed.

He said failure to open the units would add to growing waiting lists for the EMUs, more attendances at emergency departments for people with epilepsy, and a need to refer patients abroad for treatment. “This is something I don’t want to have to do. It’s professionally depressing.”

The waiting lists will be further exacerbated by delays in opening the Cork unit. Yesterday James Reilly, the health minister, said it was unlikely to open before the second or third quarter of this year. He was at the opening of the Mercy Urgent Care Centre in Cork.

He said he had spoken to Dr Colin Doherty, the HSE national clinical lead for epilepsy, and Pat Healy, the regional director of operations for HSE South, about the Cork unit and it was the intention to “start recruiting” nurses to open the units.

“These new facilities, which are state-of-the-art, need new specialist nurses and we are recruiting those,” he said.

Dr Reilly also said the unit in Beaumont, prior to upgrade, “wasn’t safe, in fact, because of the number of staff involved and their inability to monitor full- time”. This runs contrary to what is now proposed for the opening of Beaumont, on a phased, under-staffed basis.

Ms Brennan said if she could not get the monitoring tests she needs here, she faced having to pay for them privately abroad, at a cost of close to €100,000.

Picture: Health Minister James Reilly being asked a question about Yvonne Brennan, who has epilepsy, by ‘Irish Examiner’ reporter Catherine Shanahan, who held up a photograph of Yvonne during a media conference following the official opening of the Mercy Urgent Care Centre at St Mary’s Health Campus, Gurranabraher, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

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