Stephen Teap: ‘We could fix the system. But it’s just the three of us now, nothing fixes that’

Between 2010 and 2015, Irene Teap had four pregnancies, two miscarriages, gave birth to two sons, and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died on July 26, 2017. It was another nine months before her husband found out she had been the victim of misread smears. On the second anniversary of her death Stephen Teap tells Health Correspondent Catherine Shanahan how the family has fared since.

Stephen Teap and his sons Oscar and Noah near their home in Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Stephen Teap and his sons Oscar and Noah near their home in Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

Oscar and Noah Teap are busily and effectively dismantling earlier attempts at a tidy-up in their home in Carrigaline, Cork, on the day I call to see how the family has been faring in the two years since the death of their mother, Irene.

Oscar, six, has had a feed of marshmallows and is in rip-roaring good form.

Noah, four, can’t wait for the cinema.

Spiderman: Far from Home is on the cards later in the afternoon.

So far, so normal. Two bright-eyed, happy little boys doing the things happy little boys do.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

It’s important to Stephen, their father, that those who interview him about his wife and the impact her death has had on their life do so in the family home.

He recalls how, when he decided to tell his story publicly, on May 6 last year, in The Sunday Times , his only condition was that reporter Justine McCarthy come to their home.

“I told Justine: ‘I want to go public with my story and I have only one condition.’ I think Justine was reaching for her cheque book,” he laughs, “thinking: ‘How much does he want?’ But my only condition was that she had to come down to my house in Carrigaline. Because if you want to interview me, I need you sitting here to see what this is about.

“I said when all of this scandal comes and goes, this is just what’s left at the end of it all.

“We could fix everything with the screening programme, it could be the best screening programme in the world, and everyone could be happy around the country.

“But it’s just still Oscar and Noah and myself at the end of the day, and nothing fixes, this you know.”

LOSS OF A MUM

The irony is someone could probably have fixed Irene. The 35-year-old was one of the very unfortunate 221+ women who fell victim to misread smears within the national cervical cancer screening programme, known as CervicalCheck. An audit revealed the errors but the women were neither told about the audit nor that their smear results had been previously incorrectly reported.

Irene was twice given false negative results, in 2010 and 2013. She was diagnosed with stage two cancer in 2015 when Oscar was two and Noah was just 18 weeks old. Had her cancer been picked up earlier, it is likely her life would have been saved. She died on July 26, 2017, two years ago today. Oscar was four and Noah was two.

So how are the boys faring?

“The two boys are doing fine,” says Stephen.

When his mother died, “Oscar kind of got it straight away”.

“He’s like old head on young shoulders,” says Stephen, now aged 38. “He’s just like someone who lived his life before.

“Oscar is constantly recalling memories he has of her, of the stuff that he and her did together. But Noah doesn’t have any of that.”

So what they try and do is create memories for Noah.

“The house is full of photos of Irene. We talk about stuff he did with her. We create memories for him and then that gives him something to talk about.

“He can say ‘myself and my mom did this’. That’s all we can do.

“But you know he doesn’t remember her and that was her biggest fear and that’s what upset her the most and she was right too.”

“Noah couldn’t even talk when Irene passed away. He used to refer to me as daddy and her as dada and the first time he realised Irene wasn’t coming back — she died in July, it was October — the first time he realised he said: ‘Where’s mama?’

“I had gone away with work for two nights. I really built myself up for this trip, it was the first time leaving the lads after everything, and the first time that Noah was without any parent since he was born.

“He started asking: ‘Where’s mama’?

“This morning he just came out of the blue with ‘I miss my mum’.”

Oscar has asked his dad if he will remarry.

“He’s really smart for his age. He asked me the other day, while we were driving to a summer camp in Oysterhaven: ‘Dad, are you ever going to get married again?’

“I said ‘I don’t know’, and I asked him ‘why do you ask?’. He said: ‘I think you should. Because if you got married again, you could share your chores with someone else.’

“And I was like, ‘what chores?’

“He said: ‘You wouldn’t have to collect us every day. Someone else could share and give you time out.’

“I thought, ‘fuck it, you’re six you shouldn’t be thinking like that’.”

SOLO PARENT HOUSEHOLD

Lots of fresh thinking is required in the Teap household now. Stephen has said it before, and he says it again today, that being a solo parent is not the same as being a single parent “because they still have another single parent to help them out”.

They also have someone else to bounce ideas off.

“For instance, I look at Noah and I ask myself do I start him in school in September or do I wait until next year? Who do I bounce that thought off?

“You end up discussing it with relatives and friends and it’s like all decisions then are just you and you alone.

“For me it’s like, ‘there’s that decision made’ — and then you are left questioning it — ‘shit, is it the right one?’. It’s difficult.”

Being a solo parent has also required higher levels of organisation.

THE DAILY JUGGLE

Irene Teap with Oscar and Noah at a family day out. She died when Oscar was four and Noah was only two. Picture: Denis Minihane
Irene Teap with Oscar and Noah at a family day out. She died when Oscar was four and Noah was only two. Picture: Denis Minihane

Stephen, who works four days a week with Volvo, thought he had this summer sorted between créches and summer camps and willing grandparents and his own time off.

“I’d sorted the first two weeks of July and then we were going camping the last two weeks in Allihies [where Irene spent childhood holidays] and then I was looking over things and I realised ‘shit, it’s a longer month’. I hadn’t organised anything for the week of the 15th.

“So it’s this constant planning and juggling and obviously trying to build in as much time as possible with them as well.”

He says when you are on your own “you just step up to the plate and do it”.

“Every minute of every day you are just organising everything — like in my head I’m thinking we are going to go camping so I must start organising tent stuff today, clothes tomorrow and a shop tomorrow afternoon.

“And then it was like, ‘THE DOGS! Shite. Forgot to ring the kennels.’ ”

THE ICE CREAM ON THE CAKE

Irene was the queen of organising, Stephen says.

“Which is great, because I’m a disaster. So literally I was just organised as a result of her being so organised.”

A sweet example of Irene’s organisational skills was the surprise she planned for her husband on their wedding day.

They were married in St Luke’s Church in Douglas, with a reception for 120 afterwards in Barnabrow House and it was “a brilliant day”.

“I’m an ice cream addict,” Stephen says, “and she surprised me with this ice cream catering company outside the church. It was one of your traditional old-style wheelbarrow things with an umbrella over the top — a bit classier now than Mr Whippy!

“There was this massive thunderstorm in the middle of the service, and I swear it was like the roof of the church was going to come down on top of us.

“Irene told me later she was freaking out during the service because she was thinking that the ice cream would be ruined.

“But we walked out of the church and the sun split the stones.

“We hopped into the car to drive to Barnabrow and it poured. We arrived at Barnabrow and the sun split the stones. We went into the reception area, the rain came down. The speeches were over, the sun split the stones.

“It was like the weather was just co-ordinated for our day. It was really incredible, like most unusual. It could have flipped the other way.”

The best part, “not to be cheesy”, he says, “was the moment when we were just left alone”.

“Just when you’ve done the church thing, you’ve done the photographs, and everybody’s been called in to the reception area and we were just left on our own in the room and it was just — phew!

“And the speeches were good craic as well. So the best part? All of it really.

“The whole day went so fast.

“I remember someone saying to me ‘just try and stop throughout the day and take it in because it’s the fastest day of your life’ and that’s what myself and Irene literally tried to do — take a breath and stop and take it all in because it literally flies.”

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS

The honeymoon was brilliant too, he says.

“We went on a three-week honeymoon. We were, like, going to do the honeymoon once and we wanted to do it right.

“We blew everything. We were skint. Skint. We were so broke. I had previously been made redundant in 2009 with the recession, I was out of work for nine months.

“Thankfully my darling wife had this incredible job with the HSE.”

He laughs at the irony of his wife working for an organisation that ultimately and tragically failed her.

“So while skint we decided to spend about €5k on a honeymoon and decided to go to San Francisco for five days and Vegas for three days and we did the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam.

“And then I wanted to go on a cruise but it was hurricane season so the booking agents were like, ‘why don’t you fly back through Barbados, spend a week in Barbados and relax there?’ “And we were like, ‘all right’. Hah, that was savage!”

TOUGHER TIMES AHEAD

The couple got married in 2011 and Oscar arrived in 2012.

“So while broke we decided to get more broke and get married,” Stephen laughs, “and while still trying to pay off the engagement ring, we said ‘listen, kids are a great idea’, so we decided to do that.

“Then Irene got cancer and you’d be in Tesco doing the weekly shop and going to pay with the card and thinking: ‘Don’t decline, don’t decline.’

“And we’d be in the hospital then visiting Irene and we’d be in there three hours and coming out having to pay a tenner in the car park.

“But we were skint for so long, we were used to it. We had to stop the mortgage a couple of times because it was like, ‘pay the mortgage, don’t eat’.”

Stephen is incredibly stoic about all that he has been through, but there are some incidents in his wife’s life that he finds hard to put behind him.

Like when she suffered her first miscarriage.

“She had a missed miscarriage in April 2014,” he says. “Myself, herself, and Oscar were supposed to be going to Lisbon for the long weekend, and Irene, who was about eight weeks pregnant, wanted to get a 3D scan before we went. We went to a clinic in Ballincollig and they couldn’t find a heartbeat.

“We went straight to Cork University Maternity Hospital at night-time but they couldn’t do a scan because the service was 9-5. They did, however, check for a heartbeat and found none.”

They were advised to go on holidays and come back for a scan the following Tuesday.

“Irene still hadn’t started miscarrying so we were like ‘do something’.

“They said ‘no’ because we needed to have two scans one week apart.

“We said: ‘You just confirmed the fetus is dead, take it out.’ But they said: ‘Sorry, there is nothing we can do, it’s the policy.’ So Irene sat on the couch at home for a week in mental and physical torture.”

After the second scan, she was given a D&C.

Three months later, she had a second miscarriage, and the Teaps asked for tests to be done to see what was happening.

“They said: ‘Oh sorry, we can’t. The policy is that if you have a first successful pregnancy, you have to have three unsuccessful pregnancies in order for tests to be carried out.’ ”

Stephen says because Irene subsequently got pregnant with Noah, no tests were carried out, so he will never know if the early stages of cancer, already present in Irene’s cervix when Noah was born, contributed to her miscarriages.

“Hence why I like fighting the HSE for women’s rights, because we’ve been so fucked over,” he says.

FINDING HIS VOICE

Stephen and Irene Teap with their two children, Noah and Oscar. Irene died in July 2017 after receiving incorrect cervical cancer screening results. Picture supplied by Stephen Teap
Stephen and Irene Teap with their two children, Noah and Oscar. Irene died in July 2017 after receiving incorrect cervical cancer screening results. Picture supplied by Stephen Teap

The fight though has gone on far longer than he, or anyone, could ever have anticipated.

“When Irene passed away I took a month off and went back to work in September. And from September to the end of April it was really just us.

“For me, it was just to get a structure in my head, and get a routine going. So Mondays and Tuesdays was creche for both lads, Wednesdays was one grandparent, Thursdays the other, and then I was off Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

“That was important, three consecutive days together with them just as a family and no bouncing around.

“And we were getting used to that, and then all of a sudden the scandal erupts and it’s calls at night time [from media] and HSE calls during the day.”

He says he couldn’t do it without the family back-up and the support of his bosses at Volvo.

“I work a four-day week, but the scandal is seven days,” he says.

So how does he cope with the shift from the private person he instinctively is (“I hate people knowing my business generally.”) to the high-profile advocacy role he now finds himself in?

“I am doing things that used to terrify me,” he says. “Like public speaking. Christ, I’d shit myself at the thought of speaking in public before.

“The first time I was actually in front of a TV camera was the day [Dr Gabriel] Scally’s report [into the CervicalCheck controversy] came out [September 2018].

“I was terrified, I didn’t want to do it. I made my story public that time because I wanted to get a voice, so when I shout, the HSE listens.

“If I ring Simon Harris [health minister], he picks up the phone.”

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

Initially, when Irene died and the CervicalCheck scandal was still nine months away from breaking, Stephen thought the only thing he would ever be shouting about was his wife’s courage and selflessness in the face of a devastating illness.

Her determination to breastfeed Noah blew him away, he says. Through a series of parenting and breastfeeding online forums, she somehow managed to organise other women to donate their breastmilk when hers was too toxic to use due to her cancer treatment.

She “pumped and dumped” the whole way through her treatment, all the time hoping one of her doctors could tell her how soon she could resume breastfeeding once her treatment had finished.

In the end, it was a professor in the USA that gave her the answer because her own doctors, Stephen says, were at a loss — he told her 21 days.

In the meantime, they’d bought an extra fridge, still in the Teap kitchen, to store the donated milk from women all over the country.

“I really wanted to tell that story because she blew me away by what she achieved with that. I always thought: ‘Some day, I hope I get the opportunity to tell that story.’

“Little did I know it would be through the worst scandal.

“So I always kind of felt I would be talking about Irene, but I always felt it would be about that story, and not the one I am caught up in now.”

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