Tuesday 17 September 2019

'When they told us it was horrifically hard to hear'

Grace Rattigan's mother, Catherine Reck, was one of the 17 women to die in the smear test scandal, writes Maeve Sheehan

Catherine Reck is one of the 17 women who have died from cancer after her smear reading was a false negative
Catherine Reck is one of the 17 women who have died from cancer after her smear reading was a false negative
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Grace Rattigan couldn't bring herself to tune into the unfolding scandal about CervicalCheck. Her mother, Catherine Reck, died of cervical cancer a year after she was diagnosed.

"I tried to avoid it. Anything like this brings up a lot of stuff for us. Then a news article came up on my phone. It said 17 women are dead already. I went 'ok, maybe it is time we gave this our attention'," she said.

At 4pm last Thursday, in the same suite at Tallaght Hospital where Catherine was diagnosed with cancer, Grace, her father Paul and her brother Thomas were told her mother was one of the 17 women.

This weekend, Catherine Reck (48) joins the roll-call of courageous women who are forcing the health system to see the horrendous consequences of a misread smear, and the anger that they were not told of the errors after they were picked up in an audit.

Mother-of-two Vicky Phelan (43) exposed the crisis when she settled her legal action against a US laboratory for €2.5m last month. Emma Mhic Mhathuna (37), a mother-of-five who also has terminal cervical cancer, was told in the last fortnight that she had wrongly been given the all-clear in 2013. Irene Teap (35), a mother-of-two from Cork, died of cervical cancer last year. Her husband was informed last week that she was one of the 17. She was twice wrongly given the all-clear.

"For me, all I was seeing last week was numbers. Now it's not. It's us. It's Irene, it's Vicky, it's Emma, it's their families and their children," says Grace. "I look at Emma and Vicky and that was us. That was us six years ago. My brother was nine. My other brother was 16."

Catherine Reck went for a smear test with CervicalCheck in November 2010. The results said the test had shown some "low-grade" abnormalities. She was referred for a retest and neither Grace, nor her mother, was unduly concerned.

"I remember her ringing to tell me this. 'Don't be worrying'," I said. 'I'm not, I know this is the norm'," says Grace.

In the intervening months, Catherine began to bleed. She went to her GP in April, who referred her for an urgent colposcopy. But she wasn't called for the procedure until August 2011. According to Grace, her mother was told immediately that she more than likely had cancer.

Her treatment did not start until October 2011.

Grace and her then fiancE, Stephen, planned to marry in Spain in August 2012. They cancelled the wedding and brought the date forward. But Grace knew that her mam wasn't going to be there with her on her big day.

"We were told that things were a lot worse. We were told she wouldn't be around in July," she says.

Catherine died on April 13, 2012, less than a year after being diagnosed with cervical cancer.

"On the Tuesday before my mam died, we found out that I was pregnant. My mam died on the Friday. I got to tell her straightaway. She knew before my husband. If I had left it any later, she would not have known. The next day, she fell into a sleep and never woke up."

Catherine's swift death left her family devastated. They had no idea that her original smear test was audited, or that the results showed that serious abnormalities on it had been missed.

Read More: Coveney pledges State will learn from 'tragic lesson'

"My dad got a call at 7pm on the Friday of the May bank holiday weekend from Tallaght Hospital to say that they wanted to see us," she says.

"We went, myself, my brother and my dad. We brought a family friend with us to take notes because we thought we were probably going to forget a lot of what was going to happen here."

The meeting was in Suite 8 of the CervicalCheck centre. "That's where my mam was diagnosed. I never wanted to see that suite again," adds Grace. "When we arrived, they were not expecting us. They were looking at us, going 'are they expecting you?' kind of thing. It was horrendous being there in the first place."

To her amazement, the family was eventually shown to a colposcopy examination room, where they met the clinician who originally diagnosed Catherine. She went through her file and then revealed the "error".

"The smear that Catherine had in November 2010 was not low grade. It was excessively high-grade abnormalities - that is what should have been detected. At that point, my mam should have been sent for immediate referral. She would have been seen no later than January 2011 for a colposcopy. She would have been diagnosed with cancer in January 2011 as opposed to August of 2011," she says.

According to Grace, Catherine's clinician received a letter from CervicalCheck in 2015 that an audit had been carried out on her smear test and that discrepancies had been found. Her mother's audit results were placed in her file, unknown to her family, as was recommended in the official CervicalCheck guidelines that accompanied the letter. "That was horrifically hard to hear," says Grace. "What was worse was the person who did that was telling us."

The family reflected on what they were told. They got as much information as they could. They told Catherine's relatives and friends, and then they decided to go public. "If people did not speak out, this would be swept under the carpet. This would be about numbers. People speaking out is putting names to these numbers, it's putting faces to the 17 women and their families and what has been done to them," says Grace.

She is not demanding that heads roll and doesn't want "years of court battles" But she does want the Government to pay attention.

"They are dealing with 209 women in total, not thousands," says Grace. "They need to deal with those families and they need to do it fast."

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