Cervical cancer victim calls for ban on gagging clauses

Adrienne Cullen will fight until ‘last breath’ after hospital scan was lost in Netherlands

Adrienne Cullen receiving her Honorary Doctorate of Laws from University College Cork, with her husband Peter Cluskey on December 10th. A UCC sociology and philosophy graduate, Cullen has described the parallels between her own story and that of Vicky Phelan as ‘striking and deeply disturbing’ Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

An Irish woman who settled a legal action with a Dutch hospital after it lost scans that showed her with cervical cancer intends to fight until her “last breath” to end the use of confidentiality clauses in such cases

Adrienne Cullen said women like Vicky Phelan, the late Emma Mhic Mathúna and herself had had much of their lives stolen from them.

“They have been robbed of being able to see their children’s birthdays. They have been robbed of Christmas photos, of having family holidays. Of seeing their children grow up,” she said. “Peter (her husband) beside me here is losing me. My career is lost and my sense of who I am has been radically changed.”

Speaking before receiving an honorary doctorate of laws at University College Cork on Monday, Ms Cullen said she was an “angry and motivated individual” who would strive to see that “people understand how you should treat patients and how to treat them when something goes wrong”.


The 58-year-old, who grew up in Limerick, has had four operations to remove five tumours and has also undergone radiotherapy and chemotherapy since her diagnosis. She first underwent hospital tests in the Netherlands after becoming ill in 2011 and was assured she was healthy, but some of her tests went missing.

Admitted liability

In 2013, a review of old pathology results found that a test for cancerous tissue which Ms Cullen’s doctor had conducted two years earlier had, in fact, been positive. By 2015 tests showed her cancer had spread and, as a result of delays, was terminal.

University Medical Centre Utrecht (UMCU) admitted liability in her case and Ms Cullen has received compensation of €545,000, but she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Ms Cullen said such clauses must be banned across the EU as they support a culture of silence which allows medical negligence cases to go unchecked.

Her husband Peter Cluskey, who writes for the Irish Times, said one of the problems with confidentiality clauses was that hospitals always told impacted patients that their case is "unique".

“There are 10 other people or 100 other people in the same hospital in the same situation. You never get the support of numbers and that means there is never any change.”

Ms Cullen said one of the few positives of the CervicalCheck controversy was how people “clubbed together” to take on the health system.

“Because not everybody can fight this fight on their own. There was no way I wasn’t going to stand up for myself,” she said, adding that others had contacted her since she came forward with her story.

“In each case they haven’t been looked after at all. They have been cast aside. They have to be ‘looked after’ by the lawyers and that is it.”