Marshall Fittler and his granddaughter Bonnie McCaffery, of Casino.
Marshall Fittler and his granddaughter Bonnie McCaffery, of Casino.

Battle for cancer unit pays off

PEOPLE were dying when they should have lived.

It’s more than a decade since that realisation struck Liz Rummery – then Northern Rivers Area Health chairwoman – setting in motion the long chain of events, battles, broken promises and dead-ends that ended on Monday with the official opening of the region’s new cancer care and radiotherapy unit at Lismore Base Hospital.

In the final days of the 1990s Ms Rummery said she ‘became aware’ many local cancer sufferers were choosing to go without potentially lifesaving radiotherapy treatment because they could not travel to Sydney or Brisbane.

“Some were electing not to have it because they couldn’t be away from their jobs, and I felt it was something that was really an entitlement,” Ms Rummery said.

That put the issue firmly on the agenda of the area health service board, but it was not until the State Government in 2000 accepted the recommendations of the Rural Health Taskforce, also chaired by Ms Rummery, that regional hospitals should provide radiotherapy services that the campaign really got under way.

It would be another three years before the next step forward, but North Coast Area Health Service population health planning and performance executive director Vahid Saberi described the taskforce’s report as a ‘seminal’ document that overturned assumptions about what could and could not be done in regional hospitals.

Before the report’s release, the senior medicos in big city hospitals would not contemplate putting a radiotherapy unit or acardiac lab in a regional hospital.

“They said there were too many banana skins and risks in rural areas,” Mr Saberi said at the opening of the new cardiac diagnosis lab on Monday.

Ms Rummery said the first step in the campaign was to convince the locals they ought to be able to access radiotherapy locally.

“I was a real rent-a-comment for a while,” she said.

“I’d be there for anyone who wanted a speaker, telling people ‘you are entitled to this’. Country people think these things are in the city and we just have to travel. I was raising awareness that they were entitled to it.”

The Northern Star was part of the campaign from the beginning, with senior journalist Russell Eldridge, who would later become the paper’s editor, raising awareness locally and applying pressure in Sydney through the stories of individuals forced to opt out of radiotherapy treatment.

Also early to the campaign was Lismore MP Thomas George, who said it was already an issue when he first stood for election in 1999.

Soon after he took office, he led the first delegation from Lismore to meet then Health Minister Craig Knowles to urge action.

In the meantime, Northern Rivers Area Health was also arguing the case. A population analysis compiled by Vahid Saberi’s team found as many as half of all cancer patients needed radiotherapy, but on the Northern Rivers only 22 per cent received it.

By 2002 the idea had overwhelming community support, with 16,000 locals putting their names to a petition calling for a radiotherapy unit at Lismore.

When the State Government announced Lismore would be the next cab off the rank for radio-therapy services it appeared the impossible dream was coming true.

However, the dream quickly died after a priority shuffle dropped Lismore down the list in favour of Port Macquarie.

The Star stepped up the fight and the following year reporter Samantha Turnbull was named a finalist in the prestigious Walkley Awards for a series about women with breast cancer unnecessarily having breasts removed because they could not travel.

Within days of those stories appearing, then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott personally rang Russell Eldridge, who was editor by then, to announce a new Federal-State partnership to build the unit. Soon after, he and then NSW Health Minister Craig Knowles arrived in Lismore to announce they would put in $8 million each for a facility expected to be complete by 2008.

However, the celebrations again proved premature. Delays in constructing the new Richmond Clinic at the Base Hospital flowed into the radiotherapy project. Eventually the State Government declared the $16 million promised by Mr Abbott and Mr Knowles would not meet the project’s cost and it was returned to the backburner.

One of the most prominent local campaigners for the cancer unit in recent years, Marshall Fittler, was barely aware of all this at the time.

It was not until 2005 when his grand-daughter, Bonnie, had a close brush with death from leukaemia and was saved by local specialists that he became interested in health, and not until the following year when several of them threatened to leave the area over poor resources that he threw himself into the fight.

“I was like a lot of other people,” Mr Fittler said of the time before the specialists threatened to quit and he organised a public meeting attended by more than 500 people.

“I was complacent and irresponsible, and I thought someone else would do things for me and for us, but I have woken up to the fact that, if you want to live in a society like ours and have the benefits we have you have to be prepared to fight for them and fight to maintain them.”

Mr Fittler’s determination inevitably led him to the radiotherapy campaign. With the group formed from that first public meeting – Regional Community Watch, a wide mix of community and health groups and members of the Lismore Base Hospital Medical Staff Council – Mr Fittler began lobbying politicians and working to get the radiotherapy unit for Lismore Base.

That effort coalesced one weekend in 2007 when Regional Community Watch members were gathering signatures for a petition at the Lismore Car Boot Market while then Nationals Page candidate Chris Gulaptis and the future Page MP, Janelle Saffin, were campaigning at the market.

The members collared both candidates and demanded commitments for the radiotherapy unit. It was Ms Saffin that, ultimately, came up with the goods.

Although she had been out of the country for a reasonable part of the previous few years, working as an adviser to Jose Ramos-Horta in East Timor, Ms Saffin said she had been long aware of, and supported, the push for a radiotherapy unit and had begun arguing for it within the Federal Labor Party from the day she was preselected as Page candidate.

Facing a marginal seat that could easily go either way, Ms Saffin had little trouble convincing the purse handlers in Federal Labor to come up with the cash. The bigger battle was with the NSW Health bureaucracy, which was convinced the new cancer unit could not be built in the timeframe she wanted.

Ms Saffin spent a lot of time ‘going backwards and forwards’ between Shadow Health Minister Nicola Roxon and the bureaucracy before securing the commitment, announced less than two weeks out from polling day, to increase funding and get the unit built by March 2010.

The battle for the cancer unit took a new direction after the election. The radiotherapy promise secured, Mr Fittler and Regional Community Watch turned their attention to a PET scanner – at that point unheard of in regional hospitals – and asecond linear accelerator.

Ms Saffin did the same in Parliament. One of the key moments in that battle came in the 2008 Budget when the Federal Government announced $560 million in unspecified funding for regional cancer centres. Ms Saffin cheekily jumped in and announced some of the money would be headed here and then privately demanded the Government not make a liar of her.

It paid off in April when Mr Rudd arrived in Lismore to announce a second radiotherapy device, a PET scanner, and an accommodation complex for visiting sufferers.

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