Miriam Lord: Her testimony was compelling, but utterly heartbreaking
Vicky Phelan tells Public Accounts Committee she does not want to die in vain
After two weeks of political uproar over the CervicalCheck controversy, the Government announced a special package of supports for the women affected by it. The scheme will cover areas such as prescription charges, childcare and travel expenses, the provision of discretionary medical cards and counselling services.
That was last Friday morning. A special cabinet meeting scheduled for Co Monaghan was cancelled so the Government could take practical steps to help the women and families caught up in the scandal.
The evening before, Stephen Teap was in a hospital waiting-room, preparing to meet a consultant who would tell him more about the two missed screening opportunities which may have saved his wife’s life. Her clinicians knew years before about this, but decided not to tell her.
As politicians raged over the issue back in Leinster House, he was called in to hear the missing details. It wasn’t a good meeting. He felt it was handled insensitively and he didn’t get the full story.
“How dare he?” was Stephen’s reaction to the consultant’s revelations. His wife Irene, who died last year, would have wanted to know everything.
After the meeting – his wife’s file open on the table between them – he left the room “with nothing. No support services. Nothing was offered.”
The father-of-two said it was the same experience for women who were called into consulting rooms around the country to be told their cancers had been missed too. “How do you think they feel?” he asked members of the Dáil Public Accounts committee. “The HSE just sent them out the door with no support services whatsoever.”
The HSE is now charged with carrying out many of the measures put in place at that special Cabinet meeting. The Government said it might take a couple of weeks to get them up and running because individual needs would have to be addressed.
In the meantime, nothing.
“I still haven’t heard anything from them,” said Stephen. Then he turned to Vicky Phelan – the Limerick woman who was awarded €2.5 million last month in a High Court settlement with the US lab which missed her positive smear test – and murmured: “You haven’t heard anything?”
And Vicky, who is terminally ill, nodded in agreement, her eyes red from the tears she shed listening to Stephen tell his story.
Her story started it all.
When she finished, the politicians, transfixed by her words all through, applauded
She is the woman who brought the delayed diagnoses scandal to national prominence. She is the reason two Oireachtas committees are involved in a turf war over which of them should be the one to investigate this complex situation. She is the woman who is putting every distressing detail of her experience on the record so other women may not have to.
But, as with the Teap family, the HSE hasn’t been in touch yet.
The TDs shook their heads sadly. There wasn’t much else they could do.
Vicky was first to speak on “Matters related to State Claims, Management of Legal Costs and Open Disclosure.” Perhaps, committee chairman Sean Fleming asked, she might tell the members her story in her own words.
The mother of two young children, who lives with her husband in Annacotty, was a little reticent at the beginning. “Sure, most of you heard my story,” she said modestly, adding it had been “dissected” in various parts of the media over the last two weeks.
Then she told it again, the facts spilling out: dates, times, the niggling worries, the all-clears, the daily routine, the little domestic details running through the aftermath of a devastating diagnosis, the little annoyances – “waiting, you’re always waiting” – associated with intensive medical treatment, “five weeks of hell” and then returning home to two small kids at the end of it.
She was happy her hair didn’t fall out.
“I love my hair. My son loves my hair.”
Later, Stephen Teap would say how, in her final months, Irene’s “only ambition was to see her eldest boy start primary school.”
Vicky Phelan spoke for almost 30 minutes. On the screen in Committee Room 4, the red banner notices calling TDs to Dáil votes came and went. Nobody left the room.
“I’m not interested in revenge. That’s not what I’m here for,” she told them.
Her testimony was compelling, but utterly heartbreaking.
When she finished, the politicians, transfixed by her words all through, applauded. It was a meagre offering – they knew it, as did everyone else listening. But it was all they could do. It was something.
But they promised to take what they heard from her, and Stephen Teap, and use it to inform their questions when senior figures from the HSE appear before them on Thursday.
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane, the first TD to ask questions of the witnesses, began with a heartfelt “I don’t know what to say”. Then he said other people would be appearing before them, “and we’ll ask the hard questions on your behalf”.
They will be looking for answers for Vicky and Stephen, both of whom are determined to find out why information was withheld and to change the culture which encourages this behaviour.
“If you have information and you don’t pass it on, that’s a cover-up,” said Stephen, who wants to see mandatory disclosure of medical information to patients with “serious sanction in place for this”.
And for as long as she can, Vicky will continue to fight the fight. “If I do die, I want it not to be in vain . . . I don’t believe I’m going to die but I have to fight for my life every day.”
She says three issues need to be addressed: open disclosure, patient safety and the HSE management’s communications strategy. Vicky will not be deflected. She proved that in her court case, telling the committee how she reckoned the US lab and various legal people ranged against her were banking on coming up against a very sick woman who would sign off on a confidentiality agreement and go away to live out the rest of her life.
The committee members were left in awe of Vicky’s courage and resolve and Stephen’s determination to campaign on behalf of his beloved wife.
They will not be silenced.