HONORARY Freewoman of Limerick, Vicky Phelan tonight said she hopes her legacy will 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 was awarded the Freedom of Limerick by Limerick City and County Council for exposing the CervicalCheck scandal and her advocacy of women’s health issues.
She was one of several women who 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.
She dedicated her award to fellow CervicalCheck campaigner and Limerick woman Ruth Morrissey, who died aged 39, in 2020 following inaccurate readings of her smear tests in 2009 and 2012.
Ms Phelan 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. Her case against the Health Service Executive (HSE) was struck out.
Despite the hard road she took against the State, 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”.
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.”
The mother-of-two agreed with the opinion the CervicalCheck Tribunal has been a failure.
Only ten women have taken claims to the Tribunal. By contrast, around 336 have taken their cases 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 ten women or families have applied to it.”
Ms Phelan said despite the CervicalCheck scandal, many lessons still needed to be learned about the provision of quality healthcare.
She said the recent revelations that children who attended the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in South Kerry were exposed to significant harm reminded her of what had happened with CervicalCheck”
“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 government to establish a minister for women’s health.
“I’ve been challenged on that before but I honestly don’t think a man can 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?”
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’. 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.
Conferring the award, Mayor 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”.
He said gender had not influenced the award and tha, 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”.