On The Edge
THE symbolism of Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s funeral cortege passing by Leinster House, the Department of Health and, indeed, Áras an Uachtaráin last Wednesday was incredibly moving. It was just over five months since she had been told she had terminal cancer. Her smear tests had been wrongly read twice.
How devastating that news must have been for this vibrant young woman. How heartbreaking the whole ordeal must have been for her loved ones. For her children, Natasha (16), for Séamus (12), for Mario (10), for Oisín (6) and for Donncha (3). Likened to ‘a lioness’ in her protective love of her children she had ensured they are now provided for financially. Last June, she successfully sued the HSE and US laboratory Quest Diagnostics Incorporated and was awarded €7.5 million.
Adding to the unfolding tragedy is the fact that her funeral took place one day after Budget 2019 – a budget in which ‘the Government had failed to make proper provision’ for a proper cervical screening programme, according to Lisa Bermingham of the Women’s Lives Matter campaign.
AH yes, the CervicalCheck scandal is far from over. Tragically, more women will lose their lives because of bureaucratic bungling. Many of the 221 victims of this scandal may never make front-page news or tell their story so passionately and with such pathos as Emma Mhic Mhathúna.
This beautiful woman, just 37 years old, with five young children, need not have died.
Days after she walked into her local Raidió na Gaeltachta studio in Ballydavid, on the Dingle peninsula last May, she told The Irish Times: “I shouldn’t be dying, that’s what makes this a tragedy. I feel like essentially I’ve been murdered. I should be here another 50 years. The end of life is part of God’s plan, but this isn’t God’s plan. I’m dying because of human error.”
We have all become inured to the fact that our health service is a joke. We don’t even give a second thought that while this farce continues – hospital overcrowding, A&E chaos, unnecessary deaths – there was an overspend of €700 million by the HSE this year.
No one doubts Minister for Health Simon Harris’s sincerity and hard-working ethos. But we all know that neither sincerity nor hard work is enough in the unwieldy monolith that is the Department of Health.
But one cannot but recall how Brian Cowen dubbed this department Angola back in the late 1990s or how, when the present Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, a medical doctor, left that portfolio in 2016, you couldn’t see his heels for dust.
ULTIMATELY, though, it is not our politicians we can rely on to change the law, create the budgets, protect our citizenry. It is people like Vicky Phelan, another young woman who – despite her terminal diagnosis – is fighting for all of the victims of this scandal and, moreover, for future possible victims of managerial incompetence. The victims are effectively the inspirational faces of this campaign.
Speaking on Sunday at the launch of a new group called the 221+ CervicalCheck Patient Support Group, Ms Phelan said that until the law is changed to make managers in the public service accountable for errors they make, ‘we are going to keep having scandals of this nature again and again, and people will not be held accountable’.
To date, 20 of the 221 women given false negatives in their smear tests have died. The State is now set to take over the operation of a large part of the smear-test examination services for the CervicalCheck programme. For the women who have died and those who will die, isn’t it far too little, far too late?