Vicky Phelan – “We owe her a debt of gratitude that we must work tirelessly to repay”

Andrew Walsh

Tributes have poured in nationwide for the admired CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan, who died in the early hours of Monday morning aged 48, surrounded by her family in Milford Hospice in Limerick. 

The campaigner showed endless courage and strength in confronting the State’s obligations, and fiercely campaigned for over 4 years despite battling with terminal cancer.

Vicky’s husband Jim Phelan paid tribute to his wife, saying that her death “will leave a void in all our lives, that at this point seems impossible to fill.”

In a statement released from Vicky’s family, including the couple’s two children Darragh and Amelia, Jim Phelan said the family held close “the memories of a loving wife, mother, daughter and sister whose ability to deal with the struggles of life has inspired not only ourselves but an entire nation.”

President Michael D Higgins also paid his respects to the late campaigner, acknowledging that thanks to Vicky’s “tireless efforts, despite the terrible personal toll she herself had to carry, so many women’s lives have been protected, and will be protected in the future.”

“She will be deeply missed, by all of those who were in awe of her courage, her resilience, offered not only to women but to all of us in Ireland.”

In 2018, Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme, CervicalCheck was suffering from a widespread inadequacy, poor management, and lack of communication and respect for the women of Ireland. 

Vicky’s decision to pursue a High Court case over her own incorrect smear tests in April 2018, and her refusal to accept a €2.5 million non-disclosure agreement as settlement, led to her becoming the figurehead of a campaign which would propel women’s health to the forefront of Irish society. Her work in campaigning not only for herself, but also for the hundreds of other women who had suffered similar consequences resulted in a national cancer screening system that is now better resourced and more woman-centred with more patient representation. 

While there is still much work to be done, Vicky’s work saw improvements, and she opened the discussion on a range of modern health issues such as the patients being more involved in their own healthcare, transparency when mistakes are made in the health sector and assisted dying. 

Averil Power, CEO of the Irish Cancer Society, was one of many to point out the bravery of Vicky, stating that the campaigner “refused to be silent in the face of great personal challenge and the issues she brought to light changed the course of history for women in Ireland.” 

“We owe her a debt of gratitude that we must work tirelessly to repay by ensuring that women’s health is prioritised and promoted. Vicky’s legacy demands nothing less.”

Vicky had previously acknowledged that work needed to continue after her death. In a statement two years ago on 221+, a CervicalCheck patient support group, Vicky stated “I don’t want your apologies. I don’t want your tributes. I don’t want your aide de camp at my funeral. I don’t want your accolades or your broken promises.

“I want action. I want change. I want accountability. And I want to see it happen while I am still alive, not after I am dead.” 

Let us hope that the legacy of one Ireland’s bravest campaigners is, as she wished, one of action, change and accountability for all.

Andrew Walsh

Image Credit: S. Hermann / F. Richter from Pixabay