Emma Mhic Mhathúna Screengrab from HSE video/YouTube

'I had to collect my children from school and tell them that I’m dying': Emma Mhic Mhathúna

Tony O’Brien, Director General of the HSE, has said “anyone who is found to have failed in their duty” will be held to account.

Updated 11.45am 

A WOMAN WHO had a delayed cervical cancer diagnosis uncovered in a recent review by the HSE has been told that her cancer has returned and is terminal.

Emma Mhic Mhathúna, a mother of five children, has said her family is “devastated” by the news.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio 1′s Morning Ireland, Emma said she received the news this week and has told her children.

“I’ve been told I’m dying … I’m dying and I don’t need to be. I’m only 37 … this isn’t fair.”

Emma, who lives in Kerry, previously underwent treatment for cervical cancer and had received the all-clear last month, but had been feeling unwell recently and feared the disease had returned.

Morning Ireland / SoundCloud

“I had a feeling I had cancer because I’d had it before, but I didn’t think it’d be terminal.”

In a deeply emotional interview, Emma said telling her children the news was extremely difficult.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because as a mother my job is to protect them … I had to collect them from school early and tell them that I’m dying. It’s a horrible thing to witness to be honest, there’s so much pain in the house.

2013 smear test 

Emma underwent smear tests every three years since the birth of her 15-year-old daughter Natasha, and all the results had come back as normal until 2016 – when she was first diagnosed with cancer.

A smear test result in 2013 incorrectly came back as normal.

“[The test] said that I was healthy when I wasn’t and because of that I actually developed cancer and now I’m dying.”

The CervicalCheck scandal came into the public eye last month when Vicky Phelan, whose cervical cancer is also terminal, settled a High Court action against the HSE and
Clinical Pathology Laboratories for €2.5 million over incorrect smear test results from 2011.

At least 17 women wrongly given the all-clear following their smear tests have since died. Health Minister Simon Harris has launched an inquiry into the controversy.

‘My baby might not remember me’

Emma and her daughter Natasha feature in a video produced by the HSE last year in a bid to increase the uptake of the HPV vaccine.

“There wasn’t enough uptake on the HPV vaccine. After what I’d gone through … I said I’d have to take a stand and help people,” Emma said of the video while speaking on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta last week.

HSE Ireland / YouTube

“My children are going to be without me and I’m going to be without them. I tried to do everything right … I don’t even know if my little baby is going to remember me,” Emma said today.

She also expressed anger with the response of the government and the HSE to the controversy.

“Women are dead, they’re people’s daughters and they’re mammies, all the children are in so much pain … no amount of money can replace this.”

Untenable position?

Tony O’Brien, Director General of the HSE, was asked about the interview while appearing before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this morning. He said he “wasn’t in a position to hear the interview” but will listen to it “when I have an opportunity to do so”.

“It is clearly always very tragic when any young person receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer,” O’Brien said.

tony Tony O'Brien

Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry was among those to say O’Brien’s position is untenable. He described Emma’s interview as “harrowing”, adding: “We have an entire nation of women terrified.”

In a robust exchange, MacSharry said if such a controversy had taken place in the private sector, O’Brien would “be gone months ago”.

“You wouldn’t last 20 minutes [in the commercial sector] and you know it.” / YouTube

O’Brien disagreed, telling MacSharry: “You are causing hysteria. You are absolutely failing to accept the reality of population-based screening.”

He noted that CervicalCheck is a screening rather than diagnostic programme, and is not perfect. He later said that the programme has saved many lives.

O’Brien said people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before the outcome of the inquiry into the controversy.

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane told O’Brien: “You have a job to do as Director General of the HSE, we have a job as public representatives to hold you to account.

“That’s why you’re paid the salary that you’re paid, the buck stops with you … The hysteria has been caused by the systemic flaws in your organisation.”

He said O’Brien’s resignation would be “the very first step in you taking accountability and the HSE taking accountability”.

“Anybody with half a brain would know that it is a systemic failure,” Cullinane said, adding that it “speaks volumes” that O’Brien disagrees.

O’Brien responded by saying there is a difference between a system failure and a systemic failure.

‘Playing with people’s lives’ 

O’Brien noted that only 48 of the 209 women whose results were examined in an audit into CervicalCheck smear tests were informed.

He said certain people spent “far too much time” deciding who should tell the women involved, adding that this was not an official position taken by the HSE.

O’Brien said a memo that was given to him in 2016 about the communications process regarding this audit didn’t ring any alarm bells at the time.

“I was aware of a detailed plan to communicate the results of that audit. I was never subsequently advised that anything had gone wrong in that communications plan,” he said.

O’Brien said he will attempt to give the PAC a copy of the memo today.

cath Catherine Murphy

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy described Emma’s terminal cancer diagnosis as “a catastrophic failure for her and a catastrophic failure for the health service”.

She said the doctors who failed to tell patients about issues with their smear tests “were playing with people’s lives”.

O’Brien said “anyone who is found to have failed in their duty” will be held to account following due process and disciplinary procedures. He said the outcome of this process will be made public once it is complete.

He said he takes “partial responsibility” for what happened but cannot be held accountable for the actions of others.

O’Brien said the public is generally well-served by employees of the HSE and CervicalCheck, who are “as devastated as anybody by the circumstances that have now unfolded”.

If you’re concerned about the results of your smear test, you can contact the HSE’s CervicalCheck freephone helpline:

  • From Ireland: 1800 45 45 55
  • From outside Ireland: +353 21 4217612

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