Watch heroic Vicky Phelan get an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick

Vicky Phelan, broke down in tears as she revealed she plans to fund a person to be employed in a cancer care centre to provide patients with access to the latest ground-breaking drug therapies.

Ms Phelan says she is personally willing to fund such position to “shame” the Government into following her lead and provide for similar positions on a nationwide scale.

“One of the things I want to see happening is that I would hope to try to fund a position, and that one position would lead to another, so I'm willing to do that. I think that if I got the ball rolling, it would be a goodwill gesture on my part, to again shame (the government) into doing it,” Ms Phelan told reporters at the University of Limerick (UL) where she was awarded an Honourary Doctorate.

Ms Phelan, a university alumna and former employee, was joined at the ceremony by her husband Jim, her children Amelia and Darragh, and her parents John and Gaby Kelly as well as a large group of family, friends and invited guests.

The mother of two has discussed her plans with Minister for Health, Simon Harris, and the idea is in its “early stages”.

“If you're given a terminal diagnosis, you should be sent to (such a) person, because the oncologists don't do it - its not part of their remit,” she added.

Ms Phelan received a false negative test after she went for a cervical smear test in 2011.

Three years later she was diagnosed with cancer.

Last January, she was informed she had months to live.

Last April, Ms Phelan was awarded €2.5m in damages in the High Court, for the error. After telling her story publicly it led to the CervicalCheck scandal, involving 209 women.

She said: "I've been pushing to make sure that all the other women who have been going through treatment at the moment, who are part of the 209, may get access to this and he will stand by his promise and I have it in writing and he has assured me that that will be the case.

"We're pushing to get access for all women with advanced cervical cancer, there's not a huge amount of them there is only about 180, so that's my big focus at the moment really."

Ms Phelan also said she is feeling good.

She said: "I had my fourth dose of the new drug I am on last Thursday.

"After the first dose I had a very bad reaction but that was just an initial reaction to the infusion, but now my body's used to it.

"I'm flying it, there are very few side effects, the only side effect I have so far is in my hands, it's kind of like rheumatoid arthritis, it's like an inflammation, but it's a small price to pay for feeling this well."

Ms Phelan said she was “given no hope” when she received her terminal cancer diagnosis.

“There should be somebody you can go to who will help you to look up clinical trials or alternative drugs, because, its not fair to give people no hope, and expect them to go home and accept that thats you're lot.”

“If I had done that I wouldn’t be here,” she added.

Her “big focus” remains to push for all women with advanced cervical cancer to receive Pembrolizumab, newly licensed in the US, but which is not expected to be licensed in Ireland for another two to three years.

Since last April she has undergone four rounds of the breakthrough drug and last week was informed her tumours had shrunk significantly.

However, she pulled no punches in her assessment of the health service.

Asked if she had faith in the HSE, she replied: “Parts of it”.

She praised paediatric services who are treating her daughter for a “congenital disorder”.

However, she added: “But, there are parts of it that don't work well, which is the cervical screening side of things - and - also Oncology.”

“From my experience of oncology, because I've had it twice…The first time around you're in such shock that you put you're faith in the doctors and you assume they know what they’re doing, and I never questioned what they told me, and what the treatment they offered me was going to do.”

“But the second time around, you question things a bit more, especially when you know it’s a terminal diagnosis.”

“I was offered no hope in January so I had to go off and do all the research myself. I would be a bit sceptical about the health service from the point of view of terminally ill patients, because you're not given much hope.”

However, she pulled no punches in her assessment of the health service.

Asked if she had faith in the HSE, she replied: “Parts of it”.

She praised paediatric services who are treating her daughter for a “congenital disorder”.

However, she added: “But, there are parts of it that don't work well, which is the cervical screening side of things - and - also Oncology.”

“From my experience of oncology, because I've had it twice…The first time around you're in such shock that you put you're faith in the doctors and you assume they know what they’re doing, and I never questioned what they told me, and what the treatment they offered me was going to do.”

“But the second time around, you question things a bit more, especially when you know it’s a terminal diagnosis.”

“I was offered no hope in January so I had to go off and do all the research myself. I would be a bit sceptical about the health service from the point of view of terminally ill patients, because you're not given much hope.”

She added: “If I hadn’t gone ahead and looked up all these clinical trials and the immunotherapy drugs myself and pushed for them...I mean I had to push hard to get access to this drug, and the only way I got access to it was pestering people.”

“I had fundraising money to pay for it and they still wouldn't give it too me. So I had to keep pushing and pushing until I made a nuisance of myself to get access to it, and shame them into it in the end.”

“Before I got access to the drug, about two or three weeks beforehand, i was really going downhill to be honest. It was the first time I really thought 'this is the beginning of the end', because I was so ill and in such pain.”

“I'm glad I did and stuck to my guns, because I’m not sure would I be here if I had gone down the palliative care route.”

A full commission of inquiry into the Cervical-Check scandal will begin in September, following the initial Scally scoping enquiry.

Also present was Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene, from Carrigaline, Co Cork, was diagnosed with stage two cancer in 2015 and died on July 26 last year after receiving two false negative tests in 2010 and 2013.

Ms Phelan broke down a number of times under the strain of her ordeal.

“I still feel, we are weeks down the line, and there is no real accountability, and I'm not happy with that to be honest,” she said.

In a stinging criticism of the wider public sector, she added: “I don't think anything can happen until we have legislation put in place to allow for accountability in the public sector. I work in the public sector myself and I know and see there are people who shouldn't be in positions that they are in, and they wouldn't work to warm themselves.”

“But we can’t get rid of them. It's a terrible situation."

Ms Phelan punched the air after receiving her honorary doctorate paper scroll from UL President Des Fitzgerald, proudly watched by her husband, Jim, and children Amelia (12) and Darragh (7), and parents John and Gabby Kelly.

Dr Fitzgerald praised Vicky for her selfless commitment to public service, describing her as an inspiration to students, staff and the wider university community.

Dr Fitzgerald said: “Here at University of Limerick, we aim to instil in our students the ability to reason, to solve problems, to participate as citizens, to play their part in the social and political life of this country. The conferring of a UL honorary degree embraces these ideals.

"It has been awarded to just a small number of women to date including the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson; Adi Roche and Ali Hewson, for their contribution to volunteerism; and, to Catherine Day for her leadership in the European Commission, to name a few.

"Some recipients, like Vicky Phelan, are graduates of UL who have done extraordinary things, who have brought great honour to the university and to its community, and who make us proud.

Vicky Phelan has had a major impact on people’s lives in this most difficult and precious time in her own.

"Through her courage, commitment and exceptional communication skills, she is highlighting a major issue in the Irish healthcare system.

"During all of this, Vicky has encouraged the women of Ireland to have faith and to continue participating in the cervical screening programme. She is an inspiration to our students, our staff and our community, she has brought great honour to the university, and for this we have awarded Vicky Phelan an Honorary Doctor of Letters," Dr Fitzgerald continued.

The citation read at the conferring ceremony by Dr Máiréad Moriarty, Assistant Dean International at the UL School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, said: "The conferring of an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Limerick is reserved for those who have distinguished themselves, nationally or internationally, in the arts, sciences, industry, sport, social service or public service.

"It is for the scale of her positive impact on women’s healthcare nationally and the resulting emphasis on the central position of the patient within that service that we honour Vicky Phelan today. As a UL alumna and a former member of staff, Vicky Phelan exemplifies many of the traits this university endeavours to nurture in its students and staff.

“The UL community is humbled by Vicky’s accomplishments, inspired by her example and proud to call her one of our own. It is a great honour for the university that Vicky accepts this honorary doctorate – the highest accolade that we can bestow,” Dr Moriarty concluded.


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