Ireland remembers powerful campaigner Vicky Phelan

The Irish population is mourning the loss of the woman who refused to be silent.

Vicky Phelan pictured against grey background

On the morning of Monday, November 14, news broke that CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan passed away, surrounded by her family, at Milford Hospice in Limerick. She was 48-years-old. This prompted an eruption of condolences on social media from the Irish population, including Panti Bliss, Ailbhe Smyth and Hazel Coonagh.

Vicky, a mother of two, first grabbed the attention of the Irish public in 2018 after she settled her High Court Case against Clinical Pathology Laboratories, a Texas-based company subcontracted to assess her smear tests. This high-profile case would go on to prompt a series of reviews of Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme CervicalCheck, saving many lives in the process. 

Vicky was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, following this, an audit of her past screenings was conducted as this was standard practice at the time (however, the auditing process has been put on indefinite hold since 2018). The audit found that Phelan was given a false negative in 2011. In spite of these revelations, Phelan was not made aware of this result until 2017, a year after her doctor was informed, furthering her case of medical negligence. During the High Court Case, Phelan’s lawyers argued that had the cancer been detected in 2011 she would have had a 90% chance of survival, in 2018 Vicky was given 12 months to live. 

Despite her terminal cancer diagnosis Vicky actively campaigned for better healthcare and state accountability. Due to her misinterpreted smear test and her subsequent refusal to sign a nondisclosure agreement as part of her €2.5 Million settlement, we now have a cervical screening system that is finally fit for purpose. 

Throughout her activism, Vicky brought to light over 200 other people with uteruses with cervical cancer who had also been failed by the state. These people, much like Vicky, had information on their medical history withheld from them as well as having their smear slides misread to a medically negligent degree. CervicalCheck campaigner Stephen Teap said that Vicky was “always speaking about people, particularly women, taking control of their own destinies, their own bodies, their own situations”.

During her short time in the public eye, Vicky Phelan became a figurehead of hope in Ireland. She is remembered for her many achievements including; her involvement in the launch of the CervicalCheck patient support group in 2018, her Honorary Fellowship from Waterford Institute of Technology in 2018, her award-winning memoir Overcoming published in 2019, her Freedom of Limerick awarded in 2022 and her array of chat show appearances where she platformed her messages of hope, resilience and accountability. 

Queer photographer Hazel Coonagh, a regular contributor to GCN, had the pleasure of photographing Vicky in recent times, and remembered her as someone with “A strength, an inspiration and a true warrior’s spirit,” and “a joy to work with”.

LGBTQ+ activist Ailbhe Smyth similarly paid tribute to the campaigner on social media, describing her as “An outstandingly brave, determined and truly heroic woman who more than fought the good fight.”

Vicky highlighted the importance of using your voice, even when faced with monumental adversities. We will remember her in her own words: “I want change. I want action. I want accountability”. Rest in power.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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