‘She was our heart and soul’ – Vicky Phelan’s husband pays moving tribute (2024)

The 48-year-old died at Milford Hospice in Limerick in the early hours of the morning

The family of Vicky Phelan have said her death will “leave a void in all our lives, that at this point seems impossible to fill”.

In a statement issued by the Phelanfamily this evening, her husband Jim and children Amelia and Darragh, said it was with “an immense burden of grief, that earlier today we bade our final farewell to our beloved Vicky”.

“She was the heart & soul of our family unit & her passing will leave a void in all our lives, that at this point seems impossible to fill.

“We cherish the memories of a loving wife, mother, daughter & sister, who's ability to deal with the struggles of life has inspired not only ourselves, but an entire nation.

“The outpouring of grief andgood wishes from far andwide are truly appreciated. Funeral arrangements when made will be private, with an opportunity for people to pay their respects in due course,” Vicky’s loved ones said in the statement.

Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky has been hailed as a fearless advocate for Irish women as her death was announced today.

The mother-of-two died at Milford Hospice in Limerick in the early hours of this morning.

Ms Phelan’s legal case against the HSE and a US laboratory exposed the CervicalCheck scandal in which hundreds of Irish women were given incorrect negative smear test results. They were not immediately told of case audits which identified the missed opportunities.

It ultimately prompted a series of reviews of the cervical cancer screening programme CervicalCheck.

Paying tribute, President Michael D Higgins saidMs Phelan had faced her own illness with strength and dignity while also making an enormous contribution to Irish society.

The Indo Daily: Vicky Phelan the Limerick Warrior – ‘I don’t want your apologies, I want change'

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“It is with the deepest sense of sadness that people across Ireland and beyond will have heard of the death of Vicky Phelan,” the President said in a statement.

“All of us who had the privilege of meeting Vicky will have been struck by the powerful inner strength and dignity with which she not only faced her own illness, but with the sense of commitment to the public good and the rights of others with which she campaigned.

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“Vicky, in all of this, made an enormous contribution to Irish society. Thanks to her 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.

“She will of course be missed above all by those closest to her. May I express my deepest condolences to Vicky’s parents Gaby and John, her husband Jim, her children Amelia and Darragh, and to all of her family and friends.”

Ms Phelan’s case prompted other women to come forward, and raised questions about the quality of the programme, about how women should be involved and informed about their own healthcare, and the issue of open disclosure.

In 2018, Ms Phelan settled a High Court case against Clinical Pathology Labs US, receiving €2.5mwithout admission of liability. Her statement on the steps of the court lifted the lid on the scandal of women not being informed that there had been doubts about their initial tests.

It led the government to commission the Scally report into the controversy and a state apology, and led other women and families affected to form the 221+ support group.

Fellow cervical cancer campaigner Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died from the disease in 2017,paid tribute to his friend.

“It is with a broken heart that we say goodbye to my great friend Vicky Phelan, who got her wings today,”he said on Twitter.

“Five years ago she was told she only had a few months to live, she defied all the odds and through her strength and courage became a national treasure honouring us all with her wisdom, love and great sense of humour.

“Another woman of Ireland taken from us too soon. We will miss you Vicky, thank you for just being you, rest in peace my good friend.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martinextended his sympathies to the 48-year-old’s family.

“It is extremely sad news and my deepest sympathies to Vicky’s family to her husband and to Amelia and Darragh and to her entire family and friends. It’s a very, very sad moment for them because they have lost a loving mother, a wonderful person who exuded warmth and generosity of spirit,” he said.

“For the entire nation, she will always be remembered for fundamental traits of honesty, integrity and standing up for the public interest. People will always remember that statement on the steps of the High Court where she refused to sign any confidentiality agreement and wanted full public disclosure.

“In doing so, she emerged as a very strong advocate for women across this country and indeed, women globally. Her contribution to public life as a result of her basic adherence of those principles has been enormous and has been immense.

“She gave great hope, kept on fighting, examining interventions and so on, but alas, it was not to be.”

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“She was very anxious to campaign for others even though she was quite ill herself.

“That generosity and selfless spirit is something people appreciated.”

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Former Labour leader Alan Kelly, paid an emotional tribute to his friend, saying the news of her death was “devastating”.

“She was the most incredible human being probably I've ever met,”Mr Kelly told RTÉ, as he extended his condolences to her family and fellow campaigners.

“I suppose what's really shocking today is Vicky always fought back and she was always the most resilient person I've ever met.

“I suppose in your heart of hearts you know the day will come but still a shock because she always rebounded so many times.”

He said his colleagues in Leinster Housemust “finish what Vicky started”.

“If we ever want to absolutely honour the legacy of Vicky Phelan, we have to finish the work. And you know, that's what she wants. She said it quite publicly.

“I think the one legacy we have to honour is to finish the work. When it comes to open disclosure, when it comes to labs, when it comes to progressing vaccines and all the other related work.

“It has to be concluded. I’m saying it as a member of the Oireachtas to everybody in the Oireachtas, we have to finish that work,” hesaid on RTÉ’s Monday Night Live.

Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar extended his sympathies to Ms Phelan’s family.

“Today Ireland has lost a woman of limitless courage, compassion and strength. I want to extend my deepest sympathies to Vicky’s family, particularly to her children on the loss of their incredible mother,” he said.

“Vicky was a shining example of the power of the human spirit. Her fight to uncover the truth and the courage with which she faced her illness made her an inspiration to us all.

“We mourn her as a nation, as a society, and as individuals.

“Ar dheis Dé go Raibh a hAnam.”

Broadcaster Charlie Birdexpressed his sorrow.

"My heart is broken just hearing about the passing of Vicky Phelan,” the former RTÉ journalist, who himself has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, wrote on Twitter.

“Over the past year she gave me great support to keep fighting my terminal illness.

“This whole country should be in mourning at the passing of this remarkable human being. My heart is broken. My hero is gone.”

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Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “Ní Bheidh A Leithéid Ann Arís. Vicky Phelan, Mother, Daughter, Sister, Champion of Women, Campaigner who took on the State and won. Rest in Peace.”

In a statement following Ms Phelan’s death, the 221+ group for women affected by the scandal and their families saidshe had spoken out because she wanted those in power to lean from their mistakes.

“Today we have lost our biggest big sister. We are shattered,” the group said in a statement.

“She told us this day would come but she fought so hard and so well that we couldn’t let ourselves think it would happen.

“Our hearts go out to Jim, Amelia and Darragh and to Vicky’s Mam and Dad, her sisters and brothers and her extended family. Our pain is suffocating just now but it is nothing compared to their loss.”

The group added: “Vicky raised her voice in 2018 because she wanted those in power, those with responsibility to learn from their mistakes. In her own words, two years ago, she said: ‘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.’

“Let those words be her legacy. Cervical screening saves lives.

“It failed Vicky in life. In her memory those with responsibility must ensure that it never fails others.”

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly tweeted: “Today we heard the very sad news of Vicky Phelan’s passing. I send my deepest condolences and sympathies to Vicky’s family on their loss. Vicky leaves a legacy of enormous and enduring impact which has touched the lives of so very many people.”

Ms Phelan meant “so much to us all”, the director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, Orla O'Connor, said.

She wrote on Twitter: “Such incredibly sad news –there aren't enough words to describe the loss of Vicky Phelan, sincerest sympathies to Vicky's family and friends, Vicky meant so much to us all and we have so much to thank her for all she did for women in Ireland.”

‘She was our heart and soul’ – Vicky Phelan’s husband pays moving tribute (9)

Higher Education Minister and former health minister Simon Harrissaid in his first conversation with Ms Phelan, she implored him: “Some good must come from this.”

He told RTÉ's News at One programme:“When I think of Vicky, I think of her as both an advocate and a person, as an advocate she has genuinely changed the county for the better, there are things that have happened in Ireland that would not have happened if it were not for Vicky Phelan.

“She always had this amazing ability, even when being so sick herself, to be asking other people how they were and I am just utterly devastated that she is gone but I know her legacy has transformed our country and will continue to do so.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney wrote: “Very sad news. Vicky Phelan inspired so many people by her courageous campaigning, her warmth and her determination, despite her own illness.

“Deep condolences to her family.”

UCD director of gender studies Dr Mary McAuliffe tweeted: “Such a courageous woman, what a legacy she leaves, her outspoken campaigning revealed yet again the dreadful treatment of women in the Irish health system –she refused to accept meaningless platitudes, she demanded real change. Rest in power Vicky Phelan.”

Amnesty International Ireland executive director and founder of the abuse survivor group One in Four Colm O’Gorman said: “Boundless courage, love, generosity, humanity, dignity and compassion –Vicky Phelan was the very best of us. My heart is broken for her family and all who loved her. We are a poorer country for her passing.”

Psychologist and mental health advocate Niamh Fitzpatrick said: “The world was a better place with the mighty Vicky Phelan in it. A courageous, determined, authentic woman who selflessly andtirelessly worked to make life better for others. May her beautiful soul rest in eternal peace. Deepest condolences to her family andall who love her.”

Broadcaster and writer Louise McSharry wrote on Twitter: “I have so much respect and admiration for Vicky Phelan’s refusal to go down quietly, and her unbelievably generous advocacy for other women. Thinking of her family and all who loved her. May she rest in peace.”

Independent senator Lynn Ruane said: “What a woman, what a loss for her family, friends and Ireland. I will treasure every moment I was lucky enough to be in your presence Vicky.”

Green Party councillor and former Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu wrote on Twitter: “Vicky Phelan was a powerhouse, always encouraging, always inspiring and always had time for others. She was a fighter who fought for so many and we are in her debt. Thoughts are with her family and loved ones. Rest in peace Vicky, you absolute legend.”

Clare Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe wrote: “Heartbroken to hear of the death of cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan this morning. A debt of gratitude, perhaps greater than we will ever know, is owed to Vicky, Laura Brennan and all the other women whose lives were taken all too soon. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.”

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Green Party justice spokesperson and TD Patrick Costello said: “Heartbreaking to hear. Rest in peace Vicky. A formidable champion for the women who were failed by the state. Condolences to her family.”

MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan said: “So sad to hear that Vicky Phelan has died. A powerful woman.”

Ms Phelan’s solicitor Cian O’Carroll spoke of her legacy to Claire Byrne on RTÉ this morning.

“She never stopped and it came from that sense that truth and honesty were the most important thing,” he said.

“She explained so many times how she found the evidence in her own records that there had been this discovery, that there was a mistake made in her care, that her smear test had been misreported and then that had been kept from her.

“She took it upon herself, she didn’t accept attempts to gag her, she was determined that she was going to fight her case in court, that if they weren’t going to deal with her reasonably, and that nobody was going to hush her up on this because she knew other people were affected.”

Mr O’Carroll said this led to the campaign to ensure other people found out the truth of what happened to them and that they had access to new drugs to fight the disease as well as support for victims and their families.

“She fought for all that, while she was fighting for her own life,” he said.

“That is why people warmed to her, that’s why people had a sense that she was sincere, she was honest, she was brave.

“Truth and honesty were so important to her.”

Mr O’Carroll said from the first he met Ms Phelan he knew he was dealing with someone special.

“The first day I met Vicky Phelan, here in the room that I am speaking to you from now, that meeting ended with a hug, which doesn’t usually happen,” he said.

“She made connections with people, she radiated a warmth and the sense of humour that you were talking about, she was great craic and brilliant company to be in, the best company to be in.

“Even when she was so sick, she was still brilliant craic, it was in her, it just came to her so naturally.

“The whole country has lost one of the most inspirational leaders we have seen in a very very long time and she was inspirational because she spoke the truth and led with sincerity.”

Dr Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, who carried out the Government-commissioned investigation into the scandal,said Ms Phelan was “a great woman”.

“I am very privileged to have known her and worked with her on the inquiry,” he told RTÉ.

“She was enormously helpful to me and she has had a remarkable effect not just on cervical checks but some of the things she has exposed,such asthe issue about patients being told when something goes wrong and that they have a right to know when something goes wrong.”

Dr Scally added: “I think in years to come she will be regarded as having a really seminal influence on healthcare in Ireland and she changed it towards a much more patient sensitive and respectful system.”

Dr Scally described Ms Phelan as “such a tough woman, beyond belief really”.

"I first met her the day I was appointed and I wanted to see her as soon as the Government had asked me to take on this and she was delighted to meet me,” he said.

“She met me in a room in the hospital where she was having her first treatment and I couldn’t believe she was doing that in the hospital on that day, while having the first of her series of treatments.

“She was absolutely clear about what she wanted, and she wanted the whole thing exposed and opened up to daylight and for women to have a right to know what happened to them, and for when things went wrong to have a opportunity to say ‘well I want them to be sorry for this, admit to it and tell the truth.’”

Dr Scally said Ms Phelan “stood up for herself and for the women of Ireland as well”.

"She knew her chances of surviving the cancer weren’t great but she gave every ounce of energy she could possibly could,” he said.

“She did so much and she will be regarded as someone who made a really fundamental shift.

“Her commitment gave her strength, gave her strength when she saw things moving and all the women coming forward and being told properly what happened to them.”

Averil Power, chief executive of the Irish Cancer Society, said: “Today it is no small understatement to say we are poorer for the loss of Vicky Phelan, but truly richer as a nation for the contribution she so generously made to Irish life.

“Vicky 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. Without her courage and her determination, others would not have known the truth behind the Cervical Check failings.

“Despite her own experience Vicky was a staunch champion of screening and tirelessly encouraged others to take up the offer when it was their turn. Unselfishly –and true to her trademark sense of fairness and conviction – it is the promotion of screening that is such an important part of Vicky’s legacy, which will go on to save many lives.”

Ms Power continued: “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.

“Our thoughts today are with her children, Amelia and Darragh, husband Jim and all her family and friends. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.”

Ms Phelan had travelled to the US on a number of occasions for further treatment as her cancer progressed.

Despite receiving a terminal cervical cancer diagnosis, Ms Phelan has been actively campaigning for better healthcare and better accountability when mistakes are made in Ireland's healthcare system.

‘She was our heart and soul’ – Vicky Phelan’s husband pays moving tribute (10)

She also supported the passage of the Dying with Dignity Bill, which aims to legislate for assisted dying in Ireland, through the Irish parliament.

Ms Phelan, originally from Kilkenny,was awarded the freedom of Limerick earlier this year, and was the subject of the documentary Vicky, which was released last month. She released her autobiography Overcoming in 2019, and it was awarded An Post Book of the Year. Shewas named as one of the BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women around the world in 2018.

Ms Phelan’s death follows that of her friend and fellow CervicalCheck campaigner Lynsey Bennett, who died last month at the age of 34.

CervicalCheck continues to send thousands of women’s smear samples to the United States for testing, with the first National Cervical Screening Laboratory, located in the Coombe hospital, due to open before the end of the year –another legacy owing to Vicky Phelan.

More to follow...

‘She was our heart and soul’ – Vicky Phelan’s husband pays moving tribute (2024)


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