Last, anguished throw of the dice was to no avail

The Government could only stand by and watch as Billy Burke died, says Paul O’Brien.

IN late April, Anne Foley, neighbour and long-time friend of the Burke family, arranged for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to come and see Billy personally at his home in Killorglin, Co Kerry.

“I needed Bertie Ahern to meet Billy Burke,” she said. “I feel anybody who went into the room to meet him came out a different person.”

It was, in many ways, a last, anguished throw of the dice. By this stage, it was clear local TD, Arts Minister John O’Donoghue, was powerless. The then Health Minister Micheál Martin was unable to help, either. The Taoiseach was arguably the last person with enough sway to do something.

But it was to no avail. The Government, effectively, could only stand by and watch as Billy Burke died. This was partly because there was no lung transplant unit in Ireland and partly because of the Government’s efforts to circumvent that problem.

It had reached a deal with the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle whereby the latter would carry out transplants on Irish patients, albeit at its own discretion. In return, the Freeman was given exclusive rights to all Irish lung donations.

The deal meant that if the Freeman turned away an Irish patient, but another hospital agreed to carry out the transplant, the former had no obligation to provide organs. Which was precisely what happened in Billy Burke’s case.

He had battled for four years to get a double-lung transplant. A cystic fibrosis suffer, he had lived a reasonably full life until after his graduation with a degree in accountancy from the University of Limerick in the late 90s. He had begun working and was preparing to take his chartered accountancy exams when his condition began to deteriorate.

“I had taken on too much with work and studying, and the weakest link - my health - gave out,” he recalled. “It was a difficult decision as I had to leave my career behind and come back to Killorglin.”

In 1999, he travelled to Malta, believing the climate would benefit him. He moved on to Australia in February 2000. It was meant to be a dream trip. Instead, just weeks after touching down, he suffered a collapsed lung and ended up in hospital for 10 weeks.

That May, he was told if he didn’t receive a transplant, he would be dead within a year. In September, following assessment, he was put on the Freeman’s waiting list.

In October 2002, he contracted an infection that left him too ill to be considered for an operation. He spent more than four months in hospital in Dublin fighting it.

The following February, he was reassessed by doctors from the Freeman. Although the infection had cleared, they felt it had left him too weak. They did not restore him to the waiting list. He sought a second opinion.

The Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester declared him a fit candidate for transplantation and put him on its own waiting list, but Freeman was under no obligation to release suitable organs for the operation.

While Billy Burke remained confined to his home, his family, friends and supporters launched a public campaign. Five thousand people attended a rally in Killorglin and thousands more signed a petition demanding that Mr Martin expedite the case.

In the meantime, another cystic fibrosis suffer who had been turned away by the Freeman, 20-year-old Dubliner John Paul Fitzsimons, died. Like Billy, John Paul had been told by Wythenshawe Hospital it would carry out a transplant. Again, however, Wythenshawe did not have the organs to carry out the operation. The Freeman did.

The reality, though - despite the outpouring of public anger - was that the Government could not step in. It was in a bind.

As leading surgeons here pointed out, any political interference in the lung-donor system risked jeopardising it. The Freeman simply had to choose those patients it believed had the best chance of benefiting from a transplant. Tragically for Billy Burke, he was not among them, dying yesterday in the Mater at the age of 29.

More in this section

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence

Discover the

Install our free app today

Available on


Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.