Farmers’ health needs to move up the agenda as they often put their own wellbeing second to that of their livestock, according to Erin Stack, fiancee of the late John McGrath, in whose memory a calf sale helped to raise €106,000 for Kerry Hospice.

John, a farmer in his mid-40s, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer in early 2020. He was a dairy farmer on the home farm in Ahalanna, Moyvane, in north Kerry, just outside Listowel, with his two brothers Michael and Ciaran.

Like farmers throughout the country, John worked tirelessly morning to night, tending to his animals rather than thinking of his own health, Erin said.

“John would spot pneumonia in a calf and call the vet but didn’t look after himself when some of the warning signs for oesophageal cancer had come to the fore. For example, in spring 2019, John had lost a lot of weight, but when it was said to him, his response was – ‘sure I always lose weight during calving season’,” Erin said.

“During the summer of 2019, John had intermittently had trouble swallowing but always said: ‘sure it’s my own fault, I eat too fast’.

“John loved his food, and any time we went out for a meal, no-one wanted to sit next to John because he would always finish his own dish first and then sample yours, and you could guarantee heartburn wouldn’t be too far behind. We couldn’t leave the house without Gaviscon,” said Erin.

“After John was diagnosed, we all looked back at the previous 12 months, and so many of the warning signs were there, if only we had recognised them. Oesophageal cancer remains one of the most difficult cancers to detect.

“While symptoms can vary from person to person, the most common signs are weight loss for no reason; persistent heartburn; reflux and trouble swallowing. After John was diagnosed, he insisted on all of us learning the warning signs for various cancers and making sure we looked after our own health before anything else.

‘Farmers’ health is their wealth’

“As the saying goes, ‘your health is your wealth’. If John was around today, he would urge anyone that was experiencing any of these symptoms to get themselves looked after; better be safe than sorry,” Erin said. She would like to see farmers’ health moving up the agenda.

Throughout the last year John was in the care of the palliative care team in Tralee, led by consultant Dr. Patricia Sheahan.

John and Erin were really grateful for the fantastic care that he received and wanted to show their support in a tangible way. So John and his friends, Denis Kennelly and Stephen Donegan, raised €50,000 through a soccer fundraiser in 2020 for Kerry Hospice Foundation, which helps fund the palliative care service, delivered by the HSE. That cheque was presented last June to Kerry Hospice.

When John passed away last January, Erin wanted to make a special contribution to the palliative care service, to which she, and John’s family, were deeply grateful. Initially she was going to sell 10 calves. As she discussed it with her family, they encouraged and supported her to get some more calves.

They linked up with Richard Hartnett, the retired Castleisland Mart manager, and he helped expand the appeal. Eventually, by March 24, the sale in Listowel Mart had over 300 calves, donated from all over the country. Under the watchful eye of Barney O’Connell, the mart manager, the calf sale contributed a massive €106,000 that was raised for Kerry Hospice/Palliative Care.

The palliative care team treat the person who has been given the diagnosis but also provide support to the family.

“The term palliative made John fearful, but after his first admission under the team in the Kerry Hospice, that fear was gone and John went on to have five more stays, each time coming out a new man.

“The unit also arranged for nurses to call to the house which allowed John to continue with normal life, not withstanding the added complication of Covid,” Erin said.

“This massive fundraising calf sale has helped Kerry Hospice enormously,” said Jack Shanahan, chair of fundraising at Kerry Hospice.

“Like all charities, we have struggled through Covid restrictions and have lost considerable income. Erin, John (RIP), and their families and supporters have shown what community is all about, people helping people. We are deeply indebted and humbled by their efforts.”