John gets a card on Father’s Day too from the now nine-year-old boy who has no memory of his mother who died of cervical cancer in 2011, despite a previous clear smear test.
John’s devastation at the likely preventable death of his wife is yet another example, to add to the growing number, of a family torn apart by failures in the national cervical cancer screening programme.
“I feel anger, I have a constant sense of being robbed,” John said.
Speaking on RTÉ radio yesterday, the father-of-five from Co Kildare, said he received a phone call last Monday asking him to come to Tallaght Hospital “to discuss one of my wife’s smear test results”.
He was told a test that returned a normal result in 2009 had in fact contained cancer warning signs. He was told this had been identified in a 2016 audit.
His wife had a previous scare in 2007 and underwent a procedure at Midlands Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, to remove precancerous cells. Four weeks later, results indicated she was in the clear.
“We were overjoyed with that result,” John said.
“She asked the gynaecologist if it was possible to try for a child and he said he didn’t see why not.”
By December 2007, his wife was pregnant. “It was great news, we were overjoyed with that too,” John said.
A “fine and healthy” baby was born in August 2008 and a post-pregnancy smear six months later came back clear in February 2009. The family went on their first foreign holiday in Salou, Spain, in May, but two days in, John’s wife started to haemorrhage.
She was bleeding quite a lot, she knew it wasn’t a period. She just kept saying ‘it can’t be anything bad, I got an all-clear smear in February’.
When the family returned home they went to their GP and John’s wife was referred for a colposcopy. She waited six months.
In September, she haemorrhaged so badly, that one day she collapsed and lost consciousness. She was admitted to Portlaoise Hospital but discharged the following day because her blood count had improved. John’s wife subsequently contacted the hospital to inquire about the colposcopy delay — only to be told they no longer did colposcopy.
John said his wife’s gynaecological nurse contacted Tallaght Hospital and a consultant agreed to see her within days.
On December 16, 2009, John, his wife, and their baby attended Tallaght where the gynaecologist discovered a 6cm tumour. At that stage she was told she had a 70% chance of survival and that she would begin treatment after Christmas. In fact it was March before treatment began.
“That time was devastating. We tried to remain positive over Christmas. We had five children and the youngest was oblivious,” John said.
John’s wife lived for 16 months post-diagnosis — she died on April 7, 2011 — and put up “one hell of a fight for her life” even though she was in tremendous pain and never stopped bleeding and spent half of the 16 months in hospital.
It was horrific, they [the children] used to be asking me if their mam was going to die
John said his wife used to look at her baby and cry and ask if he was going to remember her.
“The thing is he doesn’t remember her, he was only two.”
John took his kids for counselling and sometimes they sit down and watch DVDs of family life with their mum. He hasn’t told his youngest that their mum is caught up in the current CervicalCheck scandal because it would “re-open old wounds”.
John is now suing the HSE.
The HSE took a gamble with my wife’s life. They didn’t lose anything and we lost everything.
Asked if he was satisfied with the way the scandal is being handled, John said: “I really, honestly think that incompetent man, Tony O’Brien, should be removed from the job immediately.”
He said he believed there would be “more horrific stories” to follow, and “lives lost”.
John’s solicitor, Damien Tansey, said he has received “30 to 40 calls” from people concerned about how they or their loved ones were treated as cancer patients. He said the calls extended to concerns about other cancers, not just cervical.
He said John was suing the HSE, the entity operating the cervical smear programme, and the lab in the US.