LARCC co-founder’s book to raise funds for cancer support
In a new book Air, Sea and Land Memories – A Pilot Revisits, Frank Russell, the co-founder of LARCC Cancer Support Centre in Multyfarnham, recounts his adventurous career, first as a young Irish Air Corps Lieutenant, and later his move to the then recently formed Accident Investigation Unit in the Department of Transport.
The retired army commandant hopes to raise funds for LARCC through the sale of the book, with details an adventurous career, highlights including a tour of duty with the United Nations Truce Supervisory organisation based in Damascus and Jerusalem, and a daring search and rescue mission of the coast of Galway – his first time flying a real mission as a helicopter pilot, and which was almost to become his last!
“It’s a compilation of stories I’ve written since I’ve retired,” Frank tells the Westmeath Examiner from his home in the Burren, County Clare.
“The first story details a rescue of two French fishermen who were stranded on a rock. And while the mission ended successfully, it raised more questions than answers.
“The question was what was that French trawler doing at an Irish island way inside the territorial limits, they shouldn’t have been inside the 12 miles. I answered that enigma a long time later and that comes up later in the book.”
The book opens with that – his first search and rescue mission, in August 1972, when he and his crew set off from Casement Aerodrome to assist in the rescue of two French sailors reported overboard from their trawler near Inishark island off Cleggan, Galway.
Frank recounts how he spotted the two sailors stranded on top of a large rock near the cliff face. Unable to make a normal rescue because of the proximity of the cliffs to the rock, it was necessary to approach backwards.
Frank, as the pilot, was directed by a crew member in a tricky manoeuvre.
Successfully winching the first sailor from the rock resulted in what might have become a disaster as he was a large man and so excited at being rescued that when he entered the helicopter cabin, he accidentally thumped Frank on the arm causing the helicopter to drop suddenly.
Frank regained control only feet above the head of the second sailor still on the rocks.
Although wet and exhausted, both men were physically uninjured and were flown back to their trawler.
Frank faced many challenges, in his career and personally, having twice survived cancer, first in 1998 when diagnosed with neck cancer and being told by doctors that he’d be “lucky to last two years”, and again in 2007 with he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“After I got my wings, I flew a Vampire jet before I went to helicopters in 1972. As someone said to me, you only live once and you’ve got to make the best out of what you have, and I must say I had an interesting and varied career and I’m delighted for it.
“Everything I seem to have done led to various challenges. LARCC was a huge challenge, but they were all challenges that I faced and most of them seemed to have worked out for the good.”
Originally from Blanchardstown, Frank became involved with the founding of LARCC while recovering from his first bout of cancer.
“Twenty-two years ago, and my own diagnosis in 1998, I was diagnosed with neck cancer and it took quite a while to get over it. This was before LARCC was founded in 2003 with a lassie from Tipperary called Ita Burke.
“After I got my cancer I was at a fundraising lunch in Dublin for the Irish Cancer Society, organised by Aer Lingus cabin staff, and while I was there I got talking to one of the girls, who told me her sister had cancer, and that was Ita Burke.
“Ita was only in her 30s at the time, and she [her sister] knew I had been through the mill as well and she asked if I would have a word with Ita some time.
“Ita was the general manager in the Savoy Cinema so it was easy for me to meet her for lunch. The first time we met in the Gresham Hotel, and that sounds very grand and of course it was in the old days, but it was handy for Ita because it was next door to the Savoy. So we went in and had soup and sandwiches and Ita told me about her cancer, her diagnosis, and that she had breast cancer.
“My job that day was to listen to her and give her some advice on what to expect next, as cancer patients do with other cancer patients. “Anyway, after another lunch or two, she told me she had to go to England to get professional counselling for her condition.
“She was very upset about the cancer, I think she had a double mastectomy. She told me the trip to England was to an expensive support centre of which Prince Charles was the patron, and it cost her £2,000 for the week. That was very expensive but it included specific counselling and other stuff to help you get over psychological problems associated with a cancer diagnosis.
“When she came back, and over another one of our lunches she said to me ‘I’m going to found a place like that here except it will be for everybody, not a very expensive joint for the rich’.
“I looked at her in disbelief, she was seriously ill and I was still recovering. It hadn’t been taken up by any other organisation and Ita was the first to run with it.
“To be honest, my first reaction was to tell her to forget about it, to enjoy life and go off on a long holiday. Except I didn’t realise who I was dealing with. She was a rather determined young woman and she decided to go with it.
“Once I realised that there was no stopping this woman, I began to half listen, if you like, I wasn’t enthusiastic from the beginning because I couldn’t believe that it could be done, to be honest.
“But Ita believed it could be done, so in 2002 she rented an apartment in Mullingar and she set up a little office there and she lived there in preparation for opening the new centre, which was to be in September in 2003.
“She spent quite a while working on the background and on a business plan for the whole operation. I remember also she did interviews for the Westmeath Examiner and she told me she was going to get a house in the area. I asked her why and she said it’s very simple: “Mullingar is in the centre of Ireland, and I want people to come to us from all over the country.”
She found a house and put €100,000 of her own money into it, and while it didn’t buy the house, it was enough to get a mortgage and set the place up. You can see from the word go, despite her own illness and ongoing treatment, Ita was determined to set up this place and she used to come back to me every now and again and run stuff by me and that’s as much as I was doing in the early days.
“Fast forward to 2003 and she was due to open it in September and at that stage Ita had employed the people she needed to run it for her and the first client arrived in September. It was then formally opened by Brian Lenihan, who was then the Junior Minister for Health, and the tragic part of it was a week before the opening, Ita died.
“I assumed that the family would cancel the whole project because it was Ita who was driving everything, but the answer was no, they were going to go ahead with it, and that’s how I got involved.
“Her brother-in-law asked if I would look after the opening and at that time I was working part-time, week-on, week-off, and I happened to have a week off that week and I said ok, no problem. We were all there for the opening, her family and everyone, and Ita had just been buried two days before, so it was a sombre occasion, to put it mildly, and yet, it was a happy occasion because everybody realised that we’re going to have to make this work for her memory – and that’s what happened.
“Another fortunate thing that happened was as a result of an interview that appeared in your newspaper with Ita in 2002. A consultant psychologist was reading the article and he rang up Ita and told her he liked what she was planning because her whole emphasis was not so much on certain aspects of recovery – because of her own experience, it was on the psychological aspects of recovery, which now is super critical.
“Everybody knows now that for cancer patients, the operation or the treatment is done by the medical people, but it’s the part afterwards that nobody did anything about, the psychological damage that occurs afterwards.
“This consultant psychologist was Barry Crowley and he wanted to help, but he said the only snag was that he had cancer himself and his days were numbered. He gave Ita some advice and she rang me up and asked me to deal with him and what happened subsequently was critical to the foundation of LARCC.
“Around about the same time, the Department of Health sent out a circular to everybody who’s involved in cancer and for some reason Ita and LARCC were copied in to it, asking for a paper to do with the recovery side of cancer.
“We were obviously on somebody’s radar even at that stage, because I had been on to the Dept of Health looking for any kind of a grant that we could get, so somebody had us on file. I went back to Barry Crowley and asked him to write that paper for us because he was the expert, and he wrote it about the need for psychological supports and sent it in, and that has become the basis for the need for psychological support.
“Up to then, even the Irish Cancer Society wouldn’t have focused in at that level that Barry and Ita had, and from that moment, that paper that he wrote and the stuff that he recommended while he was still ill, became part of the subsequent seven-year cancer plan that was published by the Dept of Health in 2004.
“It just goes to show how an innocent start had become fundamental to the psychological supports and care of people who were really traumatised by their cancer.”
“I had to go through my own cancer two years before I met Ita and, I have to be honest, I wouldn’t have been too au fait with the psychological problems I may or may not have had after diagnosis and operation, and a lot of radiotherapy. But to be truthful, I had pretty good support from my family and colleagues, plus the fact, I used to say to myself ‘You’re a military man, let’s get on with life’, which would have been part of my psyche – to move on rather than move backwards.
“When Ita spoke about psychological support, she was really talking about people who had no support from anywhere, family support or peer support, and there are lots of those around our country.
“Not everyone has the joy of a loving family or friends. Those are the people that Ita was aiming at, and for me in a sense I didn’t die after two years so I began to get on with things.
“I was 54 and I went back too fast, I went back to work two weeks after finishing my radiotherapy, which was too soon when I look back on it. Some time later I realised that wasn’t working out – physically, I lost two things, one was a sense of taste, and the second thing was saliva, and it was hard to put up with those things in a working environment.
“So I went to my boss and through the system and I was allowed work one week on and one week off, and that helped.
“Then I started doing bits and pieces for LARCC which worked out very well.”
“LARCC is as relevant now as it ever was, perhaps even more so. Since it started in 2003, LARCC hasn’t gone away, cancer remains as invasive as ever. The midlands, in the magnificent setting of the Franciscan Friary in Multyfarnham, is an oasis, a heaven, for cancer sufferers to come for counselling and therapies and, please God, when the HSE allows us, to get back to some of the residential courses as well. It’s a beautiful haven.
“One lovely example of I like what LARCC does is when I was on the week off I used to come down one of the days and have lunch with the clients.
“Me and five or six clients at the table – we’d never have too many clients there because it’s much more intimate that way and people get to know each other and talk to each other when there’s not too many.
“I used to sit at the table and we’d have a phenomenal lunch. When there’s six cancer patients sitting at the table having a chat, they all say what they want to say and hold nothing back because they’re fooling nobody, everybody around the table is in the same boat.
“One day I was there anyway and there was a lady at the table I thought I recognised. I asked her if I had met her before. She told me she was there last year and I asked her what had brought her back.
“She told me her recent diagnosis was bad news and her family hadn’t given her any breathing space and it was getting too much for her. She said, ‘I wanted a rest and a bit of peace from the family’, and she said it in a lovely way. She had just given me a million dollars for reasons to keep going for the job.”
In addition to co-founding the LARCC Cancer Sanctuary Centre, Frank created an online forum on the LARCC website (cancersupport.ie).
Called the Lazarus Community Forum, it invites cancer patients to share their stories in order to help others cope with the diagnosis, treatment and recovery process.
“Telling their stories on the Lazarus Community Forum can be a powerful way for cancer patients to express their thoughts and feelings on their condition both for themselves and, importantly, for those more recent patients,” he says.
“The idea for the forum came from listening to cancer patients on social occasions during their stays on the LARCC residential weeks. I heard some brave and uplifting stories and some sad ones too.
“My sincere hope was that the forum would open doors otherwise shut to ordinary cancer patients and empower them to express their thoughts and feelings on their condition both for themselves and, importantly, for those more recent patients.”
LARCC is open to all cancer patients and their families and since it was established, more than 20,000 individual sessions of support and telephone counselling have been delivered by the team there.
It is a registered charity (No. 14959) and is mainly funded through donations and contributions from the public.
Frank’s book costs €20 plus postage, and is available from Hayes Print Publishing in Ennistymon, County Clare. Telephone (065) 707 1125 or email email@example.com.
Although the doors are closed at the centre in Multyfarnham, due to the pandemic, almost all LARCC support services continue to be available remotely for cancer patients and their families, including counselling and nurse support.
Four fifths of LARCC’s annual operating budget of €280,000 has to be raised through fundraising events, and donations from the public and business community.
Find out more by calling 044 9371971 or visit the website cancersupport.ie; or on Facebook @LARCCcancersupportcentre.