Celtic warrior who fought a selfless fight
Emma Mhic Mhathuna has left a legacy of hope for Ireland, writes her friend and advocate Stephen McMahon
Emma Mhic Mhathuna died last Sunday from cervical cancer that developed undetected. At her funeral the celebrant Fr Paddy Moran recalled: "Her illness, she said, she did not see as part of God's plan, but rather as the result of human error."
I hadn't heard from Emma for a while, but that was not unusual. Her ever attentive uncle John would update me from time to time. I had sent a text to Emma and her uncle last Saturday that I would go down and visit her on Sunday.
Late on Saturday night, I was told that Emma was near the end of her earthly journey. The night took on a chill as that text's deeper meaning struck home. In the short time I had known Emma as her patient advocate and friend, I always saw her and referred to her as a Celtic warrior, fearless, protective of her children and noble in nature but also a very ill lady.
As I signed in to my laptop to book our flight on Sunday morning, I received the dreaded message: "The warrior is no more".
It was with a heavy heart that I went to Mass that day at Dalkey's Church of the Assumption, angry and sad. Angry because human error had denied her timely intervention for her cancer and had taken her children's mother. Sad for the loss of a friend and a master advocate.
However, what I felt was nothing to the grief and loss that her children, extended family and close friends would experience. When news broke of her death sometime around lunchtime, their grief was shared by the nation.
I first came in contact with Emma through my advocacy work. After much texting and a few calls, I arranged to visit her in St Vincent's Hospital. She had been unwell following a family trip to Morocco.
I planned a half-hour visit but within minutes, formalities were dispensed with and life experiences shared. She was interested in everything. The visit lasted almost an hour and a half. As I stood up to leave I didn't shake her hand as I said to her I didn't want to spread any germs. She laughed.
Later she invited my wife Fiona and I down to Kerry to visit her and the family. Sadly, we never did. My wife had been ill herself during this time and Emma would thoughtfully text: "How's the other half?"
I'm sure like for so many of her friends in Kerry and around the country moments with Emma were precious pearls to be treasured. Despite her illness I received the following text which gives a rich insight into her sense of humour.
"Hi Stephen, Disney great, off to Paris were staying near the Eiffel Tower later. Getting outfits to visit the Pope Sunday. It's been a bit of an eventful year…. Does your daughter [Emma] want anything from Disney?"
I responded: "No thanks Emma 28 going on 12!"
She followed on: "I've a water balloon for top of Eiffel Tower for the boys".
I replied: "Sorry don't want to be killjoy but security is tense in Paris - they may take it very seriously... maybe release a helium balloon!"
She replied: "Imagine the Taoiseach getting a call saying I'm sorry to disturb you Emma's gotten herself into trouble. That would be all he needs right now Lol".
"Yeh, could you see him sending the LE Eithne up La Seine to rescue you" to which she replied:"De finality a Paddington bear chapter!"
The Taoiseach and the Irish Naval Service were saved this international crisis as she later told me she dropped the idea!
When you fight against injustice and all you hear is silence from the system, advocates can have their dark nights of the soul wondering if it's worth it. Emma must have had many dark nights of the soul but her spirit in search of the truth never dimmed.
At her funeral at the Pro Cathedral, I met friends who had known Emma for years who celebrated her humour, her warmth and her determination.
I learnt unexpected things about her, such as how as a child she had made her first Holy Communion at the cathedral and how she often went there to light candles. And how she studied theology at Maynooth University before she moved with her family to her beloved Kerry.
On our many social media platforms and at the bottom of every email is our motto: "Change and reform in our health care system must not be preceded by preventable funerals and injury to patients".
Emma was proof of that. Even in death, our Celtic warrior continues to drive its meaning into the heart of political and medical establishments, pressing home their duty to change.
I asked a respected health commentator for their impression of Emma Mhic Mhathuna "She was brave, very focused, family first, unafraid, spoke the truth to power, courageous, determined to get her message out in the media despite the pressure on her health and the precious time she had left. In this regard she was selfless. She has left a lasting impression on the country. We keep her memory alive by making sure the reforms happen, especially on mandatory open disclosure to patients. What a legacy."
There is nothing I can add to this. Except to say that Emma communicated the urgency of putting the patient at the heart of medicine, with honesty, candour and humour. This was the resounding message of the Scally report on the CervicalCheck crisis and one that the system must now learn from. Only by working together and listening to the powerful voice of the patient will positive change happen.
The days of health mandarins have passed.
Stephen McMahon is co-founder of the Irish Patients' Association