Women vs State: a hard quest for justice
As she relied on the kindness of strangers, her friends and family to pay for her cancer treatment in recent weeks, Vicky Phelan had good reason to be scandalised by the behaviour of the State. The powers that be had a duty of care to look after the Limerick mother when a smear test failed to pick up the initial signs of cervical cancer.
Three years after her test, she was finally diagnosed with the illness.
But it took another three years before anybody took the trouble to tell her that her test had shown a false negative.
As she put it herself, keeping the information from her was an “appalling breach of trust”.
As if her struggle with cancer, which is now terminal, was not tough enough, Vicky had to go to the courts — and face the might of the State — to seek redress. And like all too many women in the recent past, it could be argued that she was treated like an enemy of the State, rather than as a citizen deserving compassion and respect.
She had to find the funds herself for the expensive cancer drugs that she is taking as part of a clinical trial. They cost €8,500 per dose.
The story of the terminally ill Limerick woman, who insisted on lifting the lid on the appalling incompetence in our health service, is a profile in courage and composure in the face of enormous pressure.
It repeats a pattern of secrecy, obfuscation and downright negligence among those in authority that is all too familiar to women who deal with the health service, and some other State agencies.
It harks back to the days of Brigid McCole, the 54-year-old Donegal woman who died in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin in October 1996 after taking on the State after she was one of thousands of women infected with contaminated blood products.
At the time, the State was determined to defend itself — and put pressure on victims who dared to seek justice.
As with the case of Vicky Phelan, the case of McCole and hundreds of other women exposed to infected blood products revealed a culture of keeping things quiet.
The scandal involved Anti-D, a blood product that was mainly given to pregnant women with a particular blood group whose babies were at risk of developing a blood disorder disease.
The scandal came to public attention in 1994 when it emerged that the Blood Transfusion Service Board (BTSB) had failed to prevent the use of blood donated during the mid-1970s by a woman who was known to have jaundice. Although the