Past can’t be fixed - but we can change the future, says husband of cervical cancer victim

I ask myself which is worse, the day Irene died or the day I found out Irene didn’t have to die, writes campaigner Stephen Teap, whose wife was mistakenly given the all clear in smear tests.

Julie O’Reilly passed away last month, the day before Emma Mhic Mhathúna died, leaving behind four children, a husband, and two grandchildren. 

Julie found out in June 2018 that she was a part of the cervical cancer debacle when she was told that four of her previous smears were misread. 

Julie wasn’t told whether these misreads fell into the limitations of screening or were negligently misread. She was just told that the results she originally received were incorrect.

For 220 women and families caught up in this scandal, none of us know the full story about our smears. It is up to us individually to find out what exactly happened to our slides. Were our slides misread due to negligence or not? If they were read correctly, could Julie’s cancer have been detected earlier? Would she still be alive today?

This is the torture I have been living with for the last seven months with regard to my wife Irene’s slides. 

To this day, I still don’t have the answers to these questions. Instead, I have been living with all of the ‘what ifs’ like many others who have been caught up in this saga.

Lorraine Walsh put it best when she said, “I don’t know which is worse, the day I found out I had cancer or the day I found out I didn’t have to have cancer”. 

For me those words are slightly different: Which is worse, the day Irene died or the day I found out Irene didn’t have to die?

These are the thoughts that many of the bereaved families have been torturing themselves with over the last few months while we battle with the HSE and the labs to get access to the information we require so that we can find out exactly what happened. 

Either way, whether the misreads were due to the limitations of screening or were in fact negligently misread, whatever the answer is, we will have to live with this for the rest of our lives.

Less than a month after Julie’s passing and the pain of Tony and his family’s loss still so raw, he confided in the 221+ Support Group that he felt an overwhelming need to tell Julie’s story. He tells her story to give his beautiful wife a name in this scandal so that she is no longer referred to as just a number or a statistic but as a real human being, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a friend.

Tony also shares Julie’s story to highlight the mistakes of the past so they can be talked about today, exposed and investigated but, more importantly, corrected, so that no more mothers in Ireland are unnecessarily taken from us nor families ripped apart by a dysfunctional system that was “doomed to fail” as Gabriel Scally discovered as a result of his scoping enquiry into what happened.

Making sure that what happened to us does not happen to another family ever again is something that all of the 221 women and families have in common. While all of us want accountability and answers, we really want everything that is wrong with the system to be fixed so that nobody has to suffer like we have. Nothing will fix the past, nothing will bring back Julie, Irene, Emma and the 17 other women who have died, but we can change the future. This is something good, something positive that we are all determined to see happen.

Julie’s story is one of many stories we’ve been listening to over the last few months behind the scenes. There are a lot of women within the 221+ group who are still in the middle of cancer treatment. 

There are many more who are post-treatment and are suffering from the harrowing side effects of cervical cancer, who will continue to suffer physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. 

There are widowers, parents, and children who are suffering the loss of their loved ones to cervical cancer. No two stories are the same, but all of our stories are connected by the cervical cancer scandal. We are all connected by the trust which has been eroded between us and our health care system. 

We all look to each other for support as there is nobody else to turn to who can understand our pain and suffering. This is why the 221+ Support Group was set up.

This is why it exists — to bring us all together and put supports in place to pick us up as we continue to fight for our own individual answers.

This is why Vicky Phelan, Lorraine Walsh, and I spend countless hours challenging the system on a daily basis, to ensure that we get the answers we deserve but, most importantly, to influence change so that we can correct the mistakes of the past and have a screening programme we can all trust and rely on so we can keep our families together.

The support from the public has been phenomenal and the whole country is behind us as we continue our battle to influence change. 

They are behind us because everyone knows that this could have easily happened to them. This outpouring of support gives us the strength and determination to move forward to influence real change in our health care system. 

Please continue to support us as we take on the system so that we can put patient care and patient safety back into the core of our healthcare and to ensure the mistakes of the past that have destroyed so many are never repeated.

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