Family of cervical cancer victim Miriam want answers, writes Nicola Anderson
A woman who had regular smear tests as part of the CervicalCheck programme was diagnosed with stage two cancer in Belfast just nine months after believing that she got the all-clear in the Republic.
Miriam O’Brien (34), a single mother-of-one from Buncrana, Co Donegal, died on August 25, 2013, having been given a terminal prognosis six months before.
In the weeks before she died, she told her family: “If anything happens to me, tell the world what they did.”
Her family have grave concerns over the care she received up until the time she transferred her care to the North, and are asking the health authorities to clarify if Ms O’Brien is included in the official figures of the 18 women who died after smear tests were misread.
Ms O’Brien’s sisters, Danielle Miley and Susan O’Brien, together with her daughter, Rachael O’Brien (19), are taking legal action against the HSE and labs used by CervicalCheck, through solicitor Pat McMyler, of PA Dorrian.
One of the defendants is Letterkenny General Hospital and its laboratories, as providers of the CervicalCheck programme, with other defendants being outsourced labs in the US.
The case was initiated originally by Ms O’Brien herself, after the Belfast doctor made her aware of alleged failures in her treatment in the Republic.
“She knew she was wronged and we are now carrying on her wish that her story be told,” said Ms Miley.
“She felt it shouldn’t be happening to her because she’d done everything right. She had all of the tests, they all came back clear and she never missed an appointment – how was it missed?
“We don’t even know if she is part of the CervicalCheck review or is it because she was diagnosed and died in the North, they may be discounting her and if so, that’s not right because all her smears were done here.”
The family described how Ms O’Brien had a smear that came back as giving no cause for alarm in June 2011 but in November/December, presented with symptoms to her GP and was referred to the cancer specialist.
“She was extremely unwell,” said Susan, explaining that her sister’s symptoms had included severe pain to the extent that she was unable to stand, along with heavy bleeding.
In March 2012 she switched to cancer care in the North because she worked across the Border and within three to four weeks of being treated within the NHS system, was diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer.
The family understand that doctors there told Ms O’Brien that it was “not possible” to have a clear smear test only for cancer to have developed to this extent a mere nine months later.
Nicola Anderson: Being kept in the dark adds final insult to the grieving families at centre of crisis
She was treated in Belfast, with chemotherapy, radium, brachytherapy and had a hysterectomy that October.
“They threw the kitchen sink at it,” said Susan.
“Miriam had good days and bad days – she didn’t want to be too reliant on pain relief and she was very hopeful at that point.”
But after the hysterectomy, she was still in pain and in January 2013, doctors took her back in for more tests after finding a mass. However, Ms O’Brien was then told her cancer was terminal by that stage.
“The pain was unbearable,” said Susan, describing how they would stay holding her at home as she cried with the severity of it.
“It was horrendous to watch. We feel that Miriam’s death was completely avoidable.”
Rachael, who was 14 at that time, described how she went away to the Gaeltacht in June that year and everything was “fine”. But when she returned three weeks later, there had been a “complete flip around”.
“Everything changed. You never expect to go away for three weeks and come back to that.”
She described Ms O’Brien as a wonderful, supportive mother and a great friend. “It was just me and her and if I ever have a child, that’s the relationship I want to have,” said Rachael, who is now going down the same caring career path as her mother, with one year left to complete in her childcare course.
After six weeks in hospital, Ms O’Brien passed away on August 25, 2013.
The defendants in the legal action being taken by her family are the HSE and Letterkenny General Hospital, Clinical Pathology Laboratories, MedLab Pathology Ltd (a sister company of CPL), Sonic Healthcare (which owns CPL and MedLab) and Quest Diagnostics. The family have been trying to get answers but have been hampered in their search for information, including which lab carried out the smear tests, and so have included all the possible facilities used by the CervicalCheck programme.
Ms Miley has contacted the CervicalCheck helpline on four separate occasions in the past two weeks but has not had any satisfactory response.
On the first occasion, she received assurances that someone would call her but that did not happen and, two days later, she rang again to say that her 77-year-old mother was anxious to know if Ms O’Brien’s name was going to come out amid the CervicalCheck scandal. She was told she would be prioritised but after receiving two text messages saying that her call had been logged, she rang again on May 11 to be told they are dealing with “priority cases” first. Since then, the family have had no contact.
“We want to know if she is part of this at all – is she one of the 209 women who were subject to CervicalCheck reviews – or is she one of the 18 women who passed away – or is she one of the two women who still have not been contacted?” Ms Miley asked.
“Miriam knew in her heart and soul that she was wronged… she started the legal process because she wanted to know what they had done to her.”
When a query was put to the HSE about whether Ms O’Brien is in the official statistics, it responded that it would encourage “all individuals to make direct contact with CervicalCheck at 1800 45 45 55 as they have all data regarding every individual registered”.
“We are making every effort to ensure every person who rings is answered and where appropriate and necessary receives a subsequent call back,” the statement finished.
MedLab said it could not comment on whether it had any involvement in Ms O’Brien’s case.