Honorary Freewoman of Limerick Vicky Phelan on Thursday night said she hoped her legacy would be that she encouraged people, particularly women, "to stand up for themselves" especially when it came to their right to proper healthcare.
The courageous Kilkenny native, who was awarded the Freedom of Limerick by Limerick City and County Council, was honoured for exposing the CervicalCheck scandal, in which she and other women were not informed that cervical cancer smear test results showing them to be in the clear were actually inaccurate and the revised test results were kept from them for years.
Afterwards, she settled a High Court action, without admission of liability, against a US laboratory that had been subcontracted by the CervicalCheck national screening programme to assess the smear tests, and her case against the Health Service Executive (HSE) was struck out.
Ms Phelan, who is receiving palliative cancer care, told people who may yet find themselves in the same position: "Don't be afraid to take them on."
Despite the “hard road” she took against the State, she said she would not change it, “because it meant that it opened the door for other people to get their cases heard, to get justice, and to get financial compensation for families”.
The mother of two agreed that, in her opinion, the CervicalCheck tribunal has been a failure.
Only 10 women have taken claims this way; by contrast, about 336 more have taken their actions to the High Court.
“It’s been very upsetting and very disappointing to see, particularly with the amount of money spent on [the tribunal], well over €2.5 million, and only 10 women or families have applied to it.
Ms Phelan said despite the CervicalCheck scandal “lots” of lessons still needed to be learned around the provision of quality healthcare.
She said the recent revelations that children who attended the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (Camhs) “reminded me so much of what had happened with CervicalCheck”.
“Here we go again, it’s another scandal that shouldn’t be happening, and again we are talking about a non-adversarial tribunal, that really doesn’t exist in this country as we already know, so there is a lot to be learned.”
Ms Phelan said women had been continuously failed in terms of healthcare and reiterated her previous calls on the Government to establish a minister for women’s health.
“I’ve been challenged on that before but I honestly don’t think a man could ever really understand what it’s like being a woman. A lot of doctors, particularly in gynaecology are men, there are very few female gynaecologists; how can a man ever understand what it’s like for a woman to have a period, to go through child birth, to go through menopause?”
‘Asking more questions’
Ms Phelan said she wanted to be remembered as “someone who asks questions . . . One person can make a difference and, if you ask questions, the worst thing that can happen is that people can say ‘no’, but certainly if your life is on the line, you certainly should be asking more questions.
“That’s really what I would advise anybody to do, so I suppose my legacy is that I would hope people would learn to stand up for themselves.”
Never one to shy away from the truth, she said she was “blown away” to be made a Freewoman of Limerick but she found it “shocking” to discover she is only the fifth woman to receive the honorary title since 1887.
Presenting the title, the Mayor of Limerick, Fine Gael councillor Daniel Butler, acknowledged "there have been far too few female recipients . . . but if there was ever a woman to put injustices right, it for sure is Vicky Phelan".
Mr Butler said “gender has not influenced this award” and that, he was “in awe” of Ms Phelan.
“If we were to build a role model, it would be in the likeness of Vicky Phelan. It would be built, piece by piece, on the traits synonymous with Vicky Phelan – courage, honesty, decency, integrity, strength, selflessness. These and more.”