Protesters fear future of Daisy Hill Hospital amid cuts
More than 800 people have attended a protest meeting over plans to limit the opening hours of a hospital emergency department in Newry, County Down.
The Southern Health Trust recently warned temporary overnight closures of Daisy Hill Hospital's ED may be unavoidable due to staff shortages.
The meeting was called by the Daisy Hill Hospital Action Group, which aims to fight any cuts to its ED operations.
Protesters expressed anger that the trust did not attend the meeting.
Daisy Hill Hospital's 24-hour ED is extremely busy, dealing with more than 50,000 patients a year.
However, its inability to recruit permanent senior medical staff has left its services vulnerable at night.
Earlier this month, the trust confirmed it was making preparations to expand ED capacity at Craigavon Area Hospital in County Armagh.
People living in parts of the Mournes, south Down and south Armagh say the increased travelling times to Craigavon would put lives at risk.
A nurse who addressed the meeting said her son could have died from meningitis were it not for Daisy Hill ED.
Gabrielle O'Neill from Crossmaglen, who has been working in health care for more than 30 years, said nurses cleared the Newry hospital's resuscitation area and "saved my son".
"We were 17 miles from Daisy Hill, we would have been another 50 minutes [travelling] to Craigavon and Ruiri would not have been saved," she added.
The nurse later told the BBC: "Bacteria had just taken hold. Craigavon was just too far away, he needed [emergency treatment] there and then."
She added that her son was stabilised at Daisy Hill ED before being moved on to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital for further treatment.
"Had he not have been able to be stabilised, in A&E casualty, he wouldn't be with me today."
Francis Gallagher from the Daisy Hill Hospital Action Group said: "If the lights go out on Daisy Hill's A&E department, they are out for good.
"Once a temporary closure takes place, that's it."
Mr Gallagher cited the example of the Downe Hospital in Downpatrick, County Down.
"Once their A&E department went into night-time closure, it now continues to be just a temporary A&E department."
The Downe Hospital opened in 2009 at the cost of £64m, but within months it admitted problems in recruiting middle-grade doctors to staff a 24-hour ED.
The Downe ED now operates only 12 hours a day from Monday to Friday and is closed at weekends.
The Newry meeting was told that some medical staff believe an announcement on reducing opening hours at Daisy Hill ED could come later this week.