Stephen Teap: ‘I want to be able to tell my sons I did something’

Father-of-two Stephen Teap says his role as a patient advocate was born out of trauma - the death of his wife Irene from cervical cancer at 37. Here, he writes about his determination to prevent similar tragedies in the future
Stephen Teap: ‘I want to be able to tell my sons I did something’

CervicalCheck campaigner Stephen Teap on the beach at Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork. Picture: David Creedon

UNTIL the Cervical Check scandal, I had never envisioned myself as a patient advocate. How did I end up in this role? 

It all began nine months after losing my wife, Irene, to cervical cancer in 2017. At 37, I was struggling to cope with my grief while being a single parent to my two boys, aged five and three, and maintaining a full-time job.

Out of nowhere, Vicky Phelan entered my life, bearing news that would change my world once again.

When I got a call from the HSE to say it had audited Irene’s cervical screening slides and found two different results from the original given to Irene and that she was one of the 17 women who died without knowing an audit had found similar shortcomings, I knew I had to do something.

Through a mutual friend, I contacted Vicky, first messaging her through social media and later speaking to her over the phone. We talked about what had happened to her and then to Irene. 

One thing was obvious after that call: I wasn’t going to let Vicky campaign on her own.

I told her I would make my story public and work with her on getting to the truth. We met in person for the first time about three weeks later, on the train to Dublin to take up an invitation from the public accounts committee in Leinster House to present our story. 

It was a nerve-racking day, but we had each other to get through it.

That day in April 2018, when Vicky stood outside the High Court after refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement, started a domino effect that would change so many lives. For me, it shattered the illusion that Irene was just another cancer victim due to bad luck. It was starting to look like she may have been a victim of something else.

Irene had said multiple times, from the diagnosis until the day she died, that she never understood how this could happen to her because she did everything right by getting regular smear tests. Now, I was beginning to understand what she meant. I needed to find out what had happened. 

The problem was that no one could answer my questions: not the politicians, civil servants or medical professionals, including the consultant I had to meet at the ’forced’ disclosure meeting concerning the hidden audit. I was left to work it out by myself.

To make matters worse, no one came to the aid of my bereaved children and I to support us through this agonising quest for the truth. This is where my journey as an advocate began.

Most advocates I’ve encountered start with a sense of social injustice. They represent those close to them or themselves and want to right the wrongs in their world by advocating for change and influencing those in power. My advocacy, however, was born out of trauma.

CervicalCheck campaigner Stephen Teap on the beach at Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork. Picture: David Creedon
CervicalCheck campaigner Stephen Teap on the beach at Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork. Picture: David Creedon

Shortly after the HSE phoned me to tell me that Irene was involved in the CervicalCheck scandal, I formulated three goals to help me make sense of what had happened and live with it.

Firstly, I needed to uncover the truth about what had happened to Irene. It took four and a half years of battling with our state, healthcare system, and two foreign labs, but I got there. Irene lost her life due to the negligence of these labs. 

As a result, her cancer diagnosis was delayed for four years after her first misread slide and two years after her second misread slide, and by the time it was discovered, it was too late. If either of those results were read correctly, Irene would be alive today.

In December 2022, the HSE and the labs — CPL and Medlab — admitted liability in the High Court, acknowledging their breach of duty of care to Irene, which led to her death. My sons and I will forever live with that truth.

Secondly, I aimed to identify what went wrong with the screening programme and see these failures rectified to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Dr Gabriel Scally’s independent review of the CervicalCheck screening programme highlighted its many shortcomings and proposed numerous recommendations to prevent a recurrence. We began to see where everything had gone wrong, but more importantly, what needed to be done to put it right. Hence the importance of ensuring ‘Scally’s recommendations’ were fulfilled in full.

My third goal was to provide support for bereaved individuals like my children, who lost their mother and for those women still alive today receiving news of changes in their screening results that may have contributed to their health problems. This led to the founding of the 221+support group in 2018, an idea I came up with and was able to put into place with the help of Vicky, Lorraine Walsh, Liz Yeates from the Marie Keating Foundation, and the Irish Cancer Society.

Today, support packages from the HSE are now in place for members of 221+. Also, all the women involved and their families have been connected so they can support each other moving forward.

Why were these three goals so important to me? From the outset, I had a picture that couldn’t be shaken. It was the moment when I would have to sit down with my boys and reveal the truth of what happened to their mother. I envisioned them asking me: ‘So, Dad, what did you do then?’ This question haunted me, motivating everything I did over the years and continues to motivate me today.

When we finally have that difficult conversation, my answer will involve explaining in a child-friendly way all the work Vicky, Lorraine, and I did to ensure that every recommendation from Dr Scally’s report was implemented to prevent others from enduring what their mum did.

I spent countless hours sitting beside Lorraine at the CervicalCheck steering committees, often biting my tongue and fighting back tears. I knew that many in the room could have done better and made a difference to Irene’s outcome. I also served on several HSE committees, including the newly formed Patient Safety Bill implementation group, which is ongoing. But, most importantly, I can now tell my children that I did everything I could.

While I’ve established what has happened to Irene, my advocacy work continues today. Earlier this year, the Patient Safety Bill was passed by the Oireachtas. It states that any person participating in the screening programme and who goes on to develop cancer can have their screening reviewed, something that Irene didn’t have available to her and something that would have answered all her questions before she died.

While the bill is now signed into law, I sit on a committee within the HSE to work on ensuring that policy is implemented to support it.

There seems to be no end in sight for this advocate. I’m attending an advocacy course at UCC, where I’ve met several people advocating for a range of causes. If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t have enough advocates in the world, and we could do with more people like Vicky Phelan to stand up and speak out.

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