VICKY Phelan exploded onto the national consciousness as she stood outside the Four Courts, setting aside her own grief to blow open the truth with her devastating courage and directness.
There are no winners here today. I am terminally ill and there is no cure for my cancer,” she said.
It was only when she told how her settlement of €2.5m would allow her to spend more time with her children that her voice cracked and wavered, betraying her intense sorrow at the prospect of having to leave her family behind at so young an age.
“If I die and I truly hope that won’t be the case, the money will be to provide for my family,” the then 43-year-old said.
That day was April 25, 2018, but mother-of-two Vicky still had a lot of living to do thanks to her courage, her rock-hard conviction that nobody should ever again have to suffer as she did – but above all else, her burning love for her children, Amelia and Darragh.
Her autobiography, Overcoming, was dedicated to them as having been her “reason for living. It has all been for you.”
In modern-day Ireland, Vicky stands as a key icon who helped to sweep away the old-style paternalistic culture that denied women the right to ask questions about their own healthcare and forced them to remain silent.
She exposed 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 inaccurate and the revised test results were kept from them for years.
In refusing to sign a confidentiality clause as part of her €2.5m High Court settlement with US-based Clinical Pathology Laboratories which had missed her cervical cancer during a 2011 smear test carried out by CervicalCheck, Vicky lifted the lid on an appalling political and medical scandal.
“The women of Ireland can no longer put their trust in the CervicalCheck programme,” she warned.
“Mistakes can and do happen but the conduct of CervicalCheck in my case and in the case of at least 10 other women is unforgiveable.”
In speaking out, Vicky Phelan’s bravery knew no bounds. She was a much-needed warrior, giving voice to those who had been suffering in silence.
It subsequently emerged that more than 220 women with cervical cancer had initially been given the all-clear as a result of misread smear tests.
From that instant, Vicky became a national treasure – a status that only intensified as time went by and we came to know and to appreciate her true mettle. She was exactly how we like our heroes to be – frank in words, fearless in nature and, crucially, leavened with fun.
Retired broadcaster Charlie Bird hit the nail on the head when he summed up Vicky, referring to her resilience and sense of “craic” when they met in her home for tea and scones before Christmas 2021.
“Her resilience is amazing and she is craic – she’s fantastic. We joked, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. She has a broad smile,” Charlie said of her.
She had a zest for life and drank it, tirelessly, to the last drop.
In her final months, she visited the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick with one of her oldest friends to hand over a cheque following the Climb with Charlie event to Croagh Patrick in May and spoke with founder Sr Helen Culhane about how children affected by death, separation or divorce are supported by the service.
She managed several trips to her “happy place”, Doughmore Beach in Doonbeg in west Clare.
In one social media post, she spoke of a weekend she had spent there with her daughter Amelia and her best friend, Susan, whom she described as “two of the most important women in my life”.
“Before I left to come home to Limerick this evening, I drove down to Doughmore to get in another sunset and what a beautiful sunset it was,” she wrote.
“It was bitter cold but the sky was lit up with beautiful colours and the waves were huge. It’s the simple pleasures in life that make me grateful to be alive.”
As a deeply moving gesture, she had her hands and those of Amelia, Darragh and their father, Jim, lovingly entwined, cast as a memorial for her children at Memory lane Studio in Dublin.
“This situation that I find myself in is NOT easy BUT I really want to leave behind physical bits of me for the kids to have,” she explained on Instagram.
She was also painted by Paul MacCormaic for an exhibition called The Vanquished Writing History, which also includes Tuam Babies campaigner Catherine Corless.
The portrait is currently on show at the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts in Dublin.
Making plans and having something to look forward to is SO important because it gets you out of bed in the morning and gives your life purpose
Another moment she cherished and which gave her followers an insight into the sheer ferocity of her will to live what was left of her life to the full was an intimate gig by her favourite band, The Stunning, in Lisdoonvara on December 4, having promised to get there even if she had to “go there in a wheelchair”.
“Well, I am delighted to tell you all that I made it to the gig….and that I did NOT need a wheelchair,” she wrote.
“I had treatment on Monday and so, in this game of chicken with terminal cancer, you never know how you are going to be after treatment so it makes it difficult to plan BUT making plans and having something to look forward to is SO important because it gets you out of bed in the morning and gives your life purpose.”
There was poignancy in her comment that the band had played songs that “that make me remember ME, the Vicky before cancer who loved nothing more than going out with her friends to listen to live music”.
The mother of two separated from her husband Jim back in 2017, but the pair still lived together in order to support their daughter, Amelia (16) and son Darragh (10). Vicky said: “One of my friends is a psychotherapist, and she said: ‘As long as you’re getting on, there’s no need to change your situation because the kids are always happier in a home with two parents.'”
She found it “cathartic” to publish her memoir, Overcoming, with writer Naomi Linehan – which was voted the An Post Irish Book of the Year for 2019.
“I didn’t know if I’d see the end of the book,” she said in an interview.
“I wrote it for two reasons: one was for my kids, and the other was for people in Ireland to understand my strength comes from layers and layers of hardship.”
The book revealed a devastating chapter in her life which she believed had taught her valuable lessons about the fragility and unfairness of life, when, as a student on an Erasmus year in France, she was involved in a serious car accident which claimed the life of her boyfriend, Christophe, and that of her dear friend from home, Lisa.
Another friend was paralysed from the neck down while Vicky had suffered serious injuries, breaking 70pc of the bones on the left side of her body.
She credited her French medical team with explaining every detail of her treatment and recovery plan.
They advised her not to sit up for two weeks so as not to damage her pelvis – but received conflicting advice on her return to Ireland.
Recovering in an Irish hospital had not been a positive experience, with Vicky claiming her surgeon had made her feel “like a piece of meat” and did not take kindly to her self-advocacy.
“You never asked me permission. I’m not giving you permission to do this any longer,” she recalled telling him.
“He wrote in my report that I had an attitude problem. I lost three of my friends, including my boyfriend, and I had all these injuries and all he could say was that I had an attitude problem.
“That was my first foray into standing up for myself against an authority figure,” she added.
She believed this brush with death helped her later on when she faced cancer, as well as the legal battle with the health system in the courts.
“It was an eye-opener, to see another health system and the way it can work. I do think that definitely helped with what happened with the smear scandal,” she wrote.
Born Victoria Kelly in Mooncoin, County Kilkenny on October 28, 1974, Vicky was the eldest of five children born to her parents, John and Gaby.
She was recalled as “a determined child” and attended Scoil Mhuire National School, Mooncoin and Mooncoin Vocational School.
In 1993, she began her studies at the University of Limerick, with a Bachelor of Arts in European Studies.
On St Patrick’s night 1996, she met her future husband, Jim Phelan. At the time, Jim’s sister was going out with Vicky’s brother, Robbie.
Having never thought she would fall in love again after Christophe’s death, she said it happened when she least expected it.
“Sometimes people just fall into one another. I’ve seen movies and read books about love that’s all-encompassing, a passion that grows and leads to a fairytale proposal. It wasn’t like that for me and Jim,” she wrote in her memoir.
“But it was love all the same. Just not from the get-go.”
A year after meeting Jim, Vicky graduated from the UK and went on to register as a research student at the fledgling Centre for Applied Language Studies, one of UL’s most prestigious research centres.
During that time, she was acknowledged by the Alliance Française for her proficiency in the language. She taught at UL and worked as a translator for the European Commission.
In 1999, at the age of 25, she took a job at Shannon Airport with an air charter company but it wasn’t what she ultimately wanted to do.
In 2001, she was appointed to the University of Limerick’s International Education Division, with her chief role being to manage the Erasmus programmes – a role she described for herself as “perfect”.
Vicky is remembered by her colleagues at UL as a “loyal, warm and professional colleague who was progressive in her approach and ambitious for the nascent international programme at UL”.
In 2004, Vicky left the University of Limerick to take up a role as Director of Literacy Development at Waterford Institute of Technology.
In the meantime, she and Jim had moved from Limerick back to Vicky’s native Co Kilkenny, buying an old farmhouse in Mullinavat.
The couple were engaged, but Vicky wrote how she never wanted the big white wedding – instead they planned to elope to Sri Lanka but when Vicky found out she was pregnant and would not be able to get her travel vaccinations, they switched their plans to St Lucia in the Caribbean where they married on March 9, 2005.
When 28 weeks into her first pregnancy, a scan had revealed a problem and Vicky was hospitalised for three weeks as doctors investigated the issue. It was discovered that Amelia had congenital toxoplasmosis.
“It was horrendous, not knowing what was going to be wrong with her,” Vicky says.
“They couldn’t tell us whether she’d be blind or brain damaged. It was a horrible pregnancy. And then for the first two years of her life we were up and down to Crumlin every six weeks, in and out to the local hospital three times a week, injecting her three days a week, medication three times a day. It was horrendous, horrible.”
Her traumatic experience in that pregnancy led her to delay having her son, Darragh, until six years later.
She later revealed that she had suffered from post-natal depression following both births.
Three months after her second pregnancy, in 2011, she had a smear test and was advised that the results were normal.
The following year, the family were hit with a blow when Amelia, who has a visual impairment, suffered severe burns at the age of seven when an ember fell from the fire into her clothes.
By 2014, Vicky was experiencing symptoms and requested another smear. It was at this point that July she was finally diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer.
Her only concerns were for her children and her recovery. She underwent aggressive treatment – chemotherapy, radiotherapy and brachytherapy and was eventually given the all-clear.
Her diagnosis prompted her inclusion in an audit conducted by CervicalCheck and when her 2011 smear was reviewed, the results were found to be inaccurate. However this finding was not published or communicated to her consultant.
During 2016, letters were issued to clinicians advising them to add the audit results to the patients’ medical record and to “use their judgement” when deciding to disclose this information to the patient.
However, she was not informed until September 2017 that the 2011 smear results had been incorrect.
Weeks later, she was informed that her cancer had returned and on January 12, 2018 at a meeting with her oncologist asked if she “had a chance”.
“And then the answer: she told me that unfortunately, the cancer looked to be terminal,” Vicky wrote in her memoir.
“I asked her what kind of a timeframe I was looking at. I had to push her for a reply. I needed to know. With chemotherapy, I may have a year, at most.
“Without it, maybe six months. I was shocked. I tried to take it in. ‘Surely there’s something I can do?’ I pleaded.
“Radiotherapy was not an option because of the position of my tumours, which were close to all my vital organs. The only option available to me was to have more chemotherapy — palliative chemotherapy. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
A week later, she scanned her medical file while waiting for an appointment for a biopsy and something caught her eye.
“The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was a report that seemed to be about the audit,” she wrote.
“I noticed at the very bottom of the page, in tiny print it said ‘page 2 of 2’.
“There’s a page missing,” she told her mother, writing that she knew ‘something wasn’t right.’
Just a few short months later, on April 19, 2018, her barrister Jeremy Maher told the High Court that if Vicky’s cervical cancer had been detected in 2011, she would have had a 90pc chance of being cured.
“Tragically her prognosis is twelve months. On January 29 this year Ms Phelan was given between six months and twelve months to live,” he told Mr Justice Kevin Cross.
He added: “She should have another 40 years to look forward to but she has a couple of months.”
But he said the mother had not given up and was hoping to be accepted on to a US programme that offered radical innovative treatment.
Her case now public knowledge, and despite her own experience, Vicky urged women to undergo cervical screening.
The following month, Dr Gabrielle Scally was appointed by the HSE to conduct a Scoping Inquiry into the CervicalCheck scandal.
A damning final report in September 2018 found the CervicalCheck screening system was “doomed to fail” and the biggest failure identified was the non-disclosure of information from the audits to patients.
In June 2018, Vicky received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Limerick, with UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald praising Vicky for her “selfless commitment to public service”, describing her as an inspiration to students, staff and the wider university community.
She also met Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at a summer party in their honour at the British Ambassador’s residence in Glencairn, south Dublin. Meghan praised her activism, saying: “You are doing great work, keep doing it.”
Vicky later admitted that she was far more excited to meet former President Mary Robinson and the rugby players who were also at the party.
In October, Vicky, together with Stephen Teap, husband of Irene Teap, who died of cervical cancer in 2017, as well as Lorraine Walsh set up the 221+ CervicalCheck Patient Support Group to represent the “known and unknown” women and families impacted by the CervicalCheck controversy by providing information, advice and support.
It came amid the national outrage and sorrow over the death of Emma Mhic Mhathúna just months after making a €7.5mon court settlement for her five children with the HSE and US laboratory Quest Diagnostics.
In November 2018, Vicky Phelan appeared on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live programme to call for the experimental drug Pembrolizumab to be made available by the HSE to all women in Ireland with cervical cancer, not just those affected by the smear test scandal. She was being treated with the drug, which cost €8,500 per dose every three weeks and it meant she could live an almost normal life despite her diagnosis, she said.
Thanks largely to Vicky’s efforts, the government confirmed that following January that ‘Pembro’ would be made available on a case-by-case basis to all women with cervical cancer, with the cost covered by the State.
February 2019 saw Vicky announce that she would pull back from her campaigning to focus on health and family, having been “very ill” over those past couple of weeks.
On October 22, 2019, came the formal State apology for which the women injured by the CervivalCheck scandal, and their families had been waiting.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stood to say: “Today’s apology is too late for some who were affected. For others, it will never be enough.”
He spoke devastatingly of “a broken service, broken promises, broken lives – a debacle that left a country heartbroken. A system that was doomed to fail”.
When the pandemic hit, Vicky continued to campaign tirelessly on public health issues, joining a HSE mental health campaign and urged people to focus on “living in the moment and try not to think too far ahead”. She also began to campaign around the issue of the right to die for the terminally ill – as well as her continuous efforts on behalf of the women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal.
In November 2020, Vicky announced that her cancer had returned and she had developed a new tumour. She told Claire Byrne Live that she was contemplating a move to the States to pursue a clinical trial.
In January 2021, she travelled to Maryland where she hoped to stay for up to six months, hoping the immunotherapy would buy her more time with her family.
In a Late Late Show appearance before leaving, she told Ryan Tubridy she was most afraid of ‘not coming back or coming back in a coffin.’
The clinical trial appeared to be going well, though Vicky also suffered some severe side effects including Bells Palsy and extreme nausea.
She posted on social media to tell her followers that she had received some “bad news” following a scan on July 6, that two of her tumours had begun growing again.
She announced that she would be remaining in the States to receive a form of radiation called proton beam therapy at Georgetown University Hospital.
She later admitted she had known her treatment would be a year long rather than six months but had not wanted to upset her family.
But in October came the bleak news that Vicky’s tumours had grown and she was no longer eligible for the treatment in the States. Instead, she returned home for palliative chemotherapy which she hoped would buy her time “until Christmas at least”.
“The ‘good’ news is that I can still have treatment and that this treatment will keep me alive until Christmas at least. The bad news is that the treatment I am about to start on is extremely toxic and will take its toll on my body and my mind,” she said.
However after one dose of chemo saw her become “horrendously ill for almost two full weeks”, she decided to stop the treatment and to take Pembro only, allowing her to focus on her quality of life and making memories with her family.
More than half a million viewers tuned in to watch her appearance on The Late Late Show last November 25.
The tireless campaigner was met with a standing ovation when she walked on to the set and in a later Instagram post, sent a heartfelt message of thanks to the people of Ireland, saying she was “absolutely blown away” by the reaction.
“To the people of Ireland who have supported me and continue to support me, I can never thank you enough,” she said.
I suppose my legacy is that I would hope people would learn to stand up for themselves
On February 3, 2022, she was awarded the Freedom of Limerick in a ceremony watched online from people all over the world – from the USA to Poland. In her speech, she expressed a hope that 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.
To others who may yet find themselves in the same position, she said: “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”.
She 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.
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.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/health/vicky-phelan-obituary-the-story-of-the-limerick-warrior-who-gave-voice-to-women-suffering-in-silence-42142423.html Vicky Phelan death: The Limerick Cervical check campaigner who gave voice to Irish women