Saturday 19 October 2019

Overcoming by Vicky Phelan: Breathtaking reflections from a reluctant warrior and survivor

Memoir: Overcoming

Vicky Phelan

Hachette, paperback, 386 pages, €14.99

Extraordinary life: Vicky Phelan. Photo by Mark Condren
Extraordinary life: Vicky Phelan. Photo by Mark Condren
Overcoming by Vicky Phelan

Tanya Sweeney

When Vicky Phelan delivered a statement from the steps of the Four Courts in April 2018, she became a warrior, if a somewhat reluctant one. She had previously refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement in the settlement of her action against the HSE, and made public her experience with the CervicalCheck screening programme. It was revealed then that 221 women with cervical cancer were not told of a clinical audit that had revised their earlier negative smear tests. It meant that their diagnoses could very possibly have been prevented.

In the months since, Phelan has become a familiar figure in Irish media, and a narrative of sorts emerged; that of an ordinary wife and mother thrust into the spotlight, somewhat unwillingly. An everywoman forced to become a warrior and crusader by dint of tragedy. Someone who wanted simply to return to the humdrum, soporific rhythm of ordinary life.

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And then in Overcoming, it emerges that as a hero, Vicky Phelan was in fact several years in the making. We only know part of the story. Her cervical cancer diagnosis is merely the latest chapter in a life that has been anything but ordinary.

Initially, Overcoming calls to mind the work of Emilie Pine, or the memoir by Maggie O'Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. In O'Farrell's highly emotive book, she pinpoints 17 moments that take the reader's breath away. Both Pine and O'Farrell recount their lives with a nakedness and candour, neither angling for sympathy nor wallowing in self-pity. It amounts to an intimate collection of moments that make up an extraordinary life and create a survivor, in ways big and small. And so it goes with Phelan.

As a child, Vicky Kelly, as she was known then, went missing from her house in Kilkenny. Her schooldays were uneventful enough, save for one plucky altercation with a bully. In 1994, while Phelan was living in France and working as an au pair, she was involved in a car accident on the way home from a rock concert. The collision killed her boyfriend Christophe and friend Lisa, and paralysed another passenger from the neck down. Though she was placed in an induced coma and underwent extensive rehabilitation, Phelan was lucky to survive. It's a devastating, dramatic passage, and a harbinger of what Phelan would learn, time and time again: life can change or capsize in the blink of an eye, often without prior warning.

Other experiences proved somewhat prophetic, highlighting as it does a tussle between healthcare professional and patient in which the latter likely knows best.

For a start, when Phelan was pregnant with her daughter Amelia, doctors diagnosed toxoplasmosis in the womb, and suggested that the baby was not compatible with life and suggested that Phelan have an abortion. Trusting her own instincts over received medical wisdom, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. A baby girl who would face her own health challenges along the way and, in one of the book's most breathtakingly horrific passages, would narrowly escape serious injury in an accident at home. Amelia's night-dress would catch fire after a spark escapes past the fireguard, leaving her with serious burns - an episode that Phelan notes was more devastatingly bruising than her cancer diagnosis.

The incident takes its toll on the Phelan family, and bruised but not out, they decide to take a restorative family holiday. Phelan and her husband Jim, who have faced their share of tribulations as a married couple, have sex, and it's here that Phelan senses that things may not be as they seem physically. A shock of bright red blood in the bedclothes prompts her to seek a diagnosis, and in 2014, she is told that she has cervical cancer. A year of gruelling brachytherapy treatment later, Phelan is told that she is cancer-free in 2015. Yet by 2017, her cancer had returned.

Phelan recounts with enviable clarity the moment where she decided, in the wake of the CervicalCheck scandal, whether to speak out, or to keep her head down. It's a motif that appears to run through several of her recollections, all the way through her life where there have been similar forks in the road. The latest one, of course, has resulted in a whole health system being overturned. And yet amid these great strides, the women that Phelan had fought the system alongside have succumbed to their illness: Laura Brennan. Tracey Brennan. Emma Mhic Mhathúna, Hearing Phelan's recollections of these women's final days, while knowing she too has a terminal illness, is almost too poignant to bear.

In a passage about the ocean, Phelan writes: "I want my ashes to be spread here when I die, whenever that day may come. To make one final journey along this beach… whatever happens next, I know that my struggles will not have been in vein. And in the end, I hope that my life will have meant something." It's a sentiment that's devastating in its simplicity.

Overcoming is more than the retelling of an extraordinary life. Its pacing and gentleness leaves plenty of room for tears and for reflection. Vicky has seemingly come to terms with the unfairness of life and the cruelty of an early, preventable death. Even so, Overcoming is the sort of book that is likely to make the reader furious beyond belief on her behalf, and on behalf of all women at that.

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