Wednesday 18 September 2019

'I considered turning down my doctorate over Harney handshake'

Cancer activist Vicky Phelan pens powerful memoir

Courage: Vicky Phelan tells her story of being diagnosed with cancer and exposing the CervicalCheck scandal. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Courage: Vicky Phelan tells her story of being diagnosed with cancer and exposing the CervicalCheck scandal. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan has revealed how she thought of turning down an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick (UL) because she would have to shake the hand of its chancellor, former health minister Mary Harney.

The agonising dilemma is disclosed in Ms Phelan's newly published gripping memoir 'Overcoming'.

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It lays bare the fascinating and gruelling journey of the Limerick mother of two who has terminal cervical cancer and exposed the CervicalCheck scandal.

Ms Phelan (44) recalls her exhilaration in June last year at being offered the doctorate at the university where she had hoped to do her PhD before being struck with the disease.

Ms Harney, who is now retired from politics, was health minister in 2008 when CervicalCheck was set up and she made the controversial decision to outsource the reading of tests to laboratories in the US, including the facility run by Clinical Pathology Laboratories (CPL) which misread Ms Phelan's smear test in 2014.

Ms Phelan remembers being shown around the university weeks before the ceremony and seeing a picture of Ms Harney on the wall.

When she was told Ms Harney was chancellor, she said: "My heart fell. I suddenly felt very torn. The chancellor would likely be presenting me with the honorary doctorate. I didn't know if I would feel comfortable accepting the doctorate from a former minister for health who presided over the original outsourcing of smear testing in Ireland. The irony would be too much for me."

A photo of "me in a hat with a scroll, shaking hands... given the reason I was receiving the doctorate was because I had been failed by the health service, it just wouldn't seem right".

She was about to summon up the courage to contact the university when she received a handwritten letter in the post from Ms Harney.

The chancellor wrote of her admiration for Ms Phelan and how the entire population had felt "empowered" by her.

She had become the voice of people who had "issues with the health service". Ms Harney said that "unfortunately" she would be unable to attend the conferring as she would be in Brussels for meetings.

"I breathed a sigh of relief. I could now accept the award," said Ms Phelan.

The book, which is at times heartbreaking and life-affirming, tells of Ms Phelan's tragic early life experiences which helped shape her resilience.

Her forceful disclosures on the steps of the Four Courts in April last year after her High Court case led to the discovery that CervicalCheck carried out an internal audit showing the smear test results of a group of women who developed cervical cancer were misread. Most of the women were not told.

Although the audit was carried out after they developed cancer, the screening service should have disclosed it had received the wrong result.

The CervicalCheck scandal which followed led to an investigation showing it was "doomed to fail", exposing major weaknesses particularly in the monitoring of US labs by health officials in Dublin.

The book reveals how as a young girl Ms Phelan was involved in a horrific car crash in France which killed her French boyfriend Christophe and left her in a coma and having to learn to walk again.

Among the most harrowing recollections is how she refused to sign a confidentiality clause in the court case, even though it would have settled her €2.5m High Court case earlier and spared her the agony of taking the stand in the Four Courts.

Supported by her solicitor Cian O'Carroll and his team, she steeled herself to give evidence despite being ill.

"The wooden seat was hard and uncomfortable. I placed my hot water bottle behind me, lodged against my back. I tried to look strong but I was grimacing with pain," she said.

Since then, Ms Phelan, who was given six months to live in January 2018, has defied the odds and stabilised with the drug pembrolizumab.

She writes movingly of how she promised her husband Jim and children Amelia and Darragh she would "be here as long as I can".

Irish Independent

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