Screening service apologises to family of Tipperary woman who died of breast cancer

Kay O’Keeffe was 63 years of age when she died.  It was the family's case that there was a delay of three years and two months in initiating treatment
Screening service apologises to family of Tipperary woman who died of breast cancer

Abnormalities were not detected on two BreastCheck mammogram images for Mrs O’Keeffe in 2011 and 2013. File picture

The National Screening Service has apologised to the husband and family of a Tipperary woman who died of breast cancer that abnormalities in her BreastCheck mammograms were not detected.

Two opportunities were missed to intervene earlier for mother of three Kay O’Keeffe, the National Screening Service has acknowledged in a letter of apology read to the High Court.

The National Screening Service, which is a part of the HSE and runs the BreastCheck programme, said it wished to acknowledge a breach of duty on its part and “admit these errors occurred”. 

“We accept that this delay materially contributed to the tragic outcome for your wife. We can only express our sincere regret to you and your family for what has happened and its devastating consequences,” the letter to Kay’s husband Patrick ‘Patsy’ O’Keeffe said.

The letter from the National Screening Service chief executive, Fiona Murphy, was read out in the High Court as Patrick O’Keeffe from Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, settled a High Court action over his wife’s death.

Kay O’Keeffe, who was also a grandmother of two, was 63 years of age when she died of breast cancer six years ago.

Referring to two BreastCheck mammogram images for Mrs O’Keeffe in 2011 and 2013, the letter noted an abnormality is seen on both sets of imaging and Mrs O’Keeffe should have been recalled to the assessment clinic for further work up on both occasions.

The letter added:

I would like to sincerely apologise for the fact that these mammographic abnormalities were not detected. I wish to acknowledge a breach of duty on our behalf and admit these errors occurred and that two opportunities were missed to intervene earlier.

Mrs Kay O’Keeffe got the all-clear on her 2011 and 2013 mammograms, but in June 2014 after she found a lump on her breast she was diagnosed with incurable Stage 4 breast cancer. The cancer spread to her liver and brain and she died on May 12, 2017.

It was the O’Keeffe's case that there was a delay of three years and two months in initiating treatment for Mrs O’Keeffe’s cancer. It was claimed their experts would say that the delay allegedly allowed a cancer, which was probably curable in March 2011, to become categorically incurable in 2014.

Outside the Four Courts in a statement read by his solicitor, Lorcan Dunphy of Donal T Ryan solicitors, Mr O Keeffe said the responsibility now rests with BreastCheck “to provide the assurance to women in Ireland that such failures can never happen again.” 

The admission and public apology, it said, “provides a level of justice for Kay, her husband and her family for these catastrophic failures and their tragic outcome.” The statement added: “At two separate meetings with BreastCheck management in 2018, Kay’s husband asked how such failures could have happened. 

In particular, how could two consecutive mammograms, on the same person, performed two years apart, be misread on each occasion, when every mammogram is read independently by two consultant breast radiologists.

"It is extremely hard to understand how the failure to detect abnormalities on four independent readings occurred and clearly indicates a process failure. Kay was a wonderful person who was devoted to her husband and children. She is gone from her family way too soon,” it said.

Patrick O’Keeffe, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, had sued BreastCheck and the National Screening Service both of Parnell Street, Dublin over the death of his wife. It was claimed there was a failure to refer Mrs O’Keeffe for a second opinion and a failure to consider or make the correct diagnosis.

A delay, it was claimed, was caused in Mrs O’Keeffe’s treatment for breast cancer which allowed a probably curable cancer to become incurable. The High Court heard that liability was initially denied in the case but when the case went to mediation a breach of duty was admitted.

Noting the settlement, Mr Justice Paul Coffey extended his deepest sympathy to Mr O’Keeffe and his family.

Labour TD Alan Kelly who attended the court case said the public apology by the National Screening Service marks the culmination of years of struggle by Mr O’Keeffe and the O’Keeffe family “to get some level of justice for Kay’s treatment”.

“They owed it to Kay,” he said.

Mr Kelly said he had raised the case with BreastCheck and the National Screening Service in 2018 in the Oireachtas Health Committee. He said he had also arranged a meeting with the then Minister for Health Simon Harris in July 2018 and subsequently with BreastCheck in October 2018.

"I am a huge supporter of BreastCheck and indeed all screening services. Screening saves lives. However, it is incumbent on me to ask the National Screening Services and BreastCheck what they have done in the intervening years to ensure no such process failures as catastrophic as this could ever happen again and I will, in support of the O’Keeffe family, continue to do so," Mr Kelly added.

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