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'She was a real lioness as a mother': Friends and neighbours remember Emma Mhic Mhathúna

Emma died yesterday – just five months after being told that her cancer was terminal.

CervicalCheck programme Emma Mhic Mhathúna during a demonstration at Leinster House in May. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

FRIENDS AND NEIGHBOURS of Emma Mhic Mhathúna have paid tribute to the 37-year-old who died yesterday – just months after being told that her cervical cancer was terminal.

The mother-of-five was one of 209 women whose smear tests had been incorrectly read; in her particular case, her smear tests had been read wrong twice. 

Along with Vicky Phelan, who was the first to go public with her story, Emma had become a voice for the women who not only had their smears incorrectly read (the accuracy of tests are around 70%), but also hadn’t been told about it by either by their doctors or by CervicalCheck.

The local priest of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, Father Eoghan Ó Cadhla, spoke to RTÉ Morning Ireland‘s Seán Mac an tSithigh about how greatly the community would miss Emma.

“It comes as a tremendous shock and it leaves a huge void for everybody, but especially for Emma’s family. She was a wonderful mother, a wonderful lady, a lady of exceptional courage, and a woman of deep, deep faith.”

She had a wonderful, generous, kind nature, and at the back of it all, that wonderful resilience in the face of all the trials and difficulties she was experiencing.

He spoke about her adoration for her children as well.

“She was telling me last week that she was looking forward to being with them on the Late Late Toy Show in December.”

In July, Mhic Mhathúna came to a settlement of €7.5 million after launching legal action against the HSE and Quest Diagnostics, the US-based company that analysed her smear test results.

“It makes a big difference for all women because it’s a significant amount and it’s a kick in the profit of Quest, and they’re not going to like that, and it makes more sense to read the smear tests properly than to be shelling out a lot of money,” she said after the settlement.

So it means a lot for me and for them in the sense that we matter – if I hadn’t have spoken up where would we be today?

After the settlement, Mhic Mhathúna stood on the steps of the High Court in a long red dress, which she later explained that her children had picked out for her. 

One memory I will always carry with me about her is her standing on the steps of the High Court in that wonderful red dress, which had been selected by the children especially for the occasion. She was beaming that particular evening, that memory will remain with me forever.

“She will be greatly, greatly missed.”

Two of her neighbours said that they were “heartbroken” that she was gone.

She was so strong and she fought for her children and all the women in Ireland.

One of Emma’s friends, Julie Malone said that during the summer a group came together for the victims of the CervicalCheck scandal: “We organised a bonfire for the turning point in the new health system,” she told Morning Ireland.

“Our friendship deepened and I got to know Emma then: the wonderful, very funny, courageous woman she was and a beautiful, beautiful mother.”

She was a real lioness as a mother. There was something Emma used to say to the kids all the time at home: “We’ll all stick together”. That was it – it was her and the children against the world.
Every penny of that money was for the children, she fought so hard for the children, and she had a kind heart.

She said that although Emma knew she was dying, that she thought that “privately maybe she thought the trial would work and she could live with her children for ever more”.

She said that on the night before her death, she was watching a film on the couch with her children; hours later she was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Malone said that apart from remembering her as a mother, she would also remember her for her “ruthless pursuit” of the truth behind the CervicalCheck scandal.

“She was like a tornado.. anyone who tried to cover up the truth would be cast aside. It was a force within her.”

She said she also had a love for the Irish language, west Kerry, and its “unique, wild” landscape.

“Emma also had lots of laughter and she had a quirky and her own sense of humour.”

She knew exactly what she was doing, she knew she needed to work ferociously to do as much as she could to keep her children in some level of comfort when she was gone.

Dónal Buggy of the Irish Cancer Society said that his thoughts were with Emma’s family. He said that he got the news of her death while at a hurling match, and he was struck by the number of people who came up to him to talk about Emma and the influence she had on them.

He said that despite all that had happened to her, Emma remained a strong advocate for cervical cancer screening, and said that “has to be one of the legacies of Emma”.

But that we really invest in a new world-best screening programme so we never have to go through another 6 months as we have.

Following the fallout of the CervicalCheck controversy, Health Minister Simon Harris said every woman who had a cervical cancer diagnosis in Ireland since screenings began in 2008 will have their smear tests reviewed.

The independent review is to be carried out by a team of cytologists from the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.

In an independent report into the smear test scandal published last month, Dr Gabriel Scally’s report highlighting a litany of failures in the governance structures of the screening programme - read more about that here.

A funeral Mass will be held for Emma tomorrow at 11am at Seipeal na Carraige, Baile na nGall. A second funeral Mass will be held at St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, Dublin for her burial at Laragh Bryan Cemetery, Maynooth, Co Kildare.

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