“If I do die, I do not want it to be in vain.”
Three weeks after the cervical cancer tests scandal became public knowledge, Vicky Phelan made a direct demand to politicians to act on the power they have given to them instead of paying lip-service to yet another national scandal.
Alongside Cork widower Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died last year after two incorrect smear tests, and her solicitor Cian O’Carroll, the Limerick mother who has so bravely taken on the elite made it clear in no
uncertain terms what must happen next.
While emphasising she is “not looking for revenge”, Ms Phelan said that out of the tragedy, of the CervicalCheck cancer incorrect smear tests scandal she and others want accountability, reform, real supports for families
affected, and an acceptance that what happened was covered up.
“I’m not interested in revenge, but I want a legacy that this will never happen again to any man, woman or child.
“If I do die, I want it to be not in vain, and for protocols to be put in place, people held accountable, and for the HSE to be overhauled — and I mean overhauled — from the ground up.”
Mr Teap, who Ms Phelan met yesterday because of each others tragic circumstances for the first time yesterday, was equally clear, using the still raw anger of his wife’s passing a year ago to bravely call for action.
Not tomorrow, not next year, not at some vague time in the distant future where so often Irish solutions to Irish problems are shelved. Now.
“We have dead women here, 209 women affected, 18 dead, and we still do not know how many are going through a terminal diagnosis,” said Mr Teap.
“We have two people [ex-HSE director general Tony O’Brien and former CervicalCheck director Gráinne Flannelly] gone, but the rest of them need to step aside.
“If you know something and don’t pass on that information, that’s a cover-up. If other people are involved in not passing on that information, they’re involved in a cover-up too.
“We’re fighters, and Irene led the pack. If she was told what happened three minutes before she died, she’d want to know. You have to fight.”
The comments have been framed by some as an unavoidable product of grief, but there is more to their stories than meets the eye.
Speaking to the committee, Ms Phelan explained that while she has months to live, this is not the reason why she is insistent on answers from those in power.
Explaining that the mistakes which have happened “have cost me my life and I shouldn’t be in this position”, she said the evidence she has uncovered clearly shows “the person looking at my smear [in 2011] either wasn’t competent or didn’t look at it at all”.
She said when it was first explained to her in 2016, she was given the second page of a two-page document — the first page of which explained there was an incorrect smear test.
She said when officials did eventually realise their errors, she unknowingly faced a 15-month “you tell her, no, you tell her” behind-the-scenes battle between CervicalCheck and her consultant when she could still have been helped.
Like Ms Phelan, Mr Teap told the committee he wants answers not just over his wife’s death, but about the shambolic bureaucracy that helped to cause it.
No open disclosure while his wife was being told she was going to die last July and “only wanted to get to end of summer to see our boy go to school” — Irene lasted another week-and-a-half.
No sensitivity or supports to date from the HSE, which simply brought him to a room in a hospital earlier this month to explain what happened before offering “nothing at all, only goodbye”.
No information to his family doctor, who had to be told of what happened by Mr Teap himself.
And a HSE doctor who initially said there was “a decision” not to tell women affected before, in Mr Teap’s word, he called back the next day as “somewhere within the 12 hours, he was clearly reminded of the company line”.
Vicky Phelan does not want to die in vain. Stephen Teap wants the cover-up to be uncovered.
Three weeks on from the cervical cancer scandal becoming public knowledge, both insist it is time for those in power to act.
For all too heart-breaking reasons, there is no more time to waste.