SUNDERLAND manager Martin O’Neill told patients of his family’s own struggle with cancer as he opened a new hospital unit.
Touched by the stories he heard, the Black Cats boss spoke of wife Geraldine’s fight with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, praising the “spirit” of those living with the condition.
O’Neill was visiting patients and staff on the new Phoenix Unit, for those undergoing chemotherapy at Sunderland Royal Hospital, which he officially opened yesterday.
“Sometimes you get on with life without ever actually seeing what is happening in your own life,” he said. “It happened to me.
“In 2004 my wife was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She went through chemotherapy which didn’t appear to work and so, in 2005, she went on to have stem cell treatment.
“She is still fighting on. She has real spirit about her, in fact, she fights with me every single day and she always wins.”
O’Neill was speaking after spending time with patients on the ward, each facing their own battles with cancer.
“When you get the chance to speak to people like I have today, it really makes you realise what’s important in life.
“I will be thinking about the Phoenix Unit and how inspiring the people are next time I talk to my group of players.”
It was in the middle of his wife’s illness that O’Neill first turned down the chance to manage Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy, fearing she was not well enough.
When the club’s owner and chairman, Ellis Short, came knocking again, O’Neill had the support of his wife and the pair moved to the North East.
O’Neill took time out of his busy schedule to tour the ward, speaking to those undergoing treatment.
Geoff Pearson, 54, of South Hetton is having his fourth bout of chemotherapy for liver and lung cancer.
“I’ve been waiting here since 8.30am to see him. It’s fantastic that he’s made the time to look around the place.
“I was treated in the old ward and this place is much better, there’s more space and privacy if you need it.”
O’Neill was given a tour of the unit by department manager Jill Bell.
She said: “This is an inspiring and amazing place to work. It really makes you look at life in a different way and think about what’s important.
“I’m so proud of all the people here, the staff and patients. The fact Martin O’Neill has chosen to come here has been very exciting for us all.”
Ken Bremner, chief executive of City Hospitals Sunderland, praised O’Neill for taking the time to really listen to the patients.
He said: “He’s come from talking to players who are earning £40,000 a week to spend some personal time with our patients, sharing in their problems.
“He’s made the effort to tour the ward and it seems to have really meant something to him. He is a great ambassador for the football club and for Sunderland.”
The new Phoenix Unit is the hospital’s Chemotherapy, Haematology and Infusion Day Unit.
The team recently moved into this new ward from a much smaller centre in the hospital, allowing it to incorporate a range of services to help and support those with cancer.
Prior to the move patients were asked to come up with a name for the new unit.
At the time, Bernadette Foreman, 49, from Chapel Garth, Sunderland, was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
“I liked the mythology, the idea of the phoenix rising from the ashes,” she said.
“I saw myself as starting again, starting afresh once I’d finished my treatment, so I suggested calling the new centre the Phoenix Unit.”
Bernadette, who had her last bout of treatment in January, helped O’Neill cut a cake to celebrate the opening.
The unit will now act as an over arching “hub” for a range of chemotherapy services - hospital, home and outreach - depending on a patient’s preference and treatment type.