“As the shock of yesterday starts to fade away, we're now waking up to the realisation that our friend is no longer at the end of that phone”
Stephen Teap admitted to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today that he he was so blindsided by his friend’s strength, he forgot the news of her death would someday come.
The mum of two passed away yesterday aged 48 after a public battle with cervical cancer, she had received an incorrect smear test result three years before her diagnosis and spent the remainder of her life campaigning for justice.
Her 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, with some of them only finding out much later that their results were positive.
"As the shock of yesterday starts to fade away, we're now waking up to the realisation that our friend is no longer at the end of that phone and our friend won't be returning our messages anymore,” Mr Teap said this morning.
"And there's this massive empty space now beside us all - all her friends, all her family, that Vicky's massive, loving courageous, wonderful personality once filled - has left behind and may never be filled again".
Vicky Phelan was a founding member of the 221+ CervicalCheck Patient Support Group alongside Mr Teap, who said that despite her terminal illness, she “still had the courage to turn against the system and say no, you’re not going to silence me, and I will take you on.”
"And while there was absolutely nothing for her to gain from doing this act, it was for everyone else".
Mr Teap lost his wife Irene to cervical cancer in 2017 when she was 35 years old.
He first met Vicky Phelan after she won her High Court case the following year.
"She was fierce. Full of passion, full of drive. Vicky would walk into a room, and everybody stood to attention. She had that personality. But she did it with that beautiful personality and that cheeky grin that she has,” he told Morning Ireland.
"And while she can be very serious when she needs to be, she's got a fantastic and wonderful sense of humour".
"The truth starts with the truth and ends with the truth, and that's everything and the backbone to everything Vicky fought for.
"And of course, this is everything that we will continue to fight for - transparency in the system.
"The right for people to know what it is going on, especially with their bodies. The right for women actually to stand up for themselves, to have that support, to be able to do so. Not to be afraid, and to be given the respect and the space to do so, and be comfortable enough to be in a position to ask the questions".
Mr Teap remains dedicated to the fight against the CervicalCheck controversy, saying “there’s still an awful lot of work to be done.”
"But I think with people like Vicky, myself, Lorraine (Walsh), and many others, we are slowly shifting change and we see it ourselves within the system. But unless it comes from the top, from the Government, unless they get going on what they said they would do and stop dragging everything out.
"We will continue this fight for a very long time, for as long as as we have to and will do it in Vicky's name for sure.
"She started the process. She's now handed it over to us and there's plenty of us here,” he said.
Vicky Phelan’s case prompted other women to come forward, and raised questions about the quality of the CervicalCheck programme, about how women should be involved and informed about their own healthcare, and the issue of open disclosure.
Despite receiving a terminal cervical cancer diagnosis, she continued her campaigning.
Ms Phelan was awarded the freedom of Limerick earlier this year, and was the subject of the documentary Vicky, which was released last month. She was named as one of the BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women around the world in 2018.
Tributes have poured in following the news of her death, with friend Charlie Bird saying his “hero is gone.”
“My heart is broken just hearing about the passing of Vicky Phelan. 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.”
President Michael D Higgins praised Ms Phelan’s “powerful inner strength and dignity” as well as her contribution to Irish society in an official statement.
“It is with the deepest sense of sadness that people across Ireland and beyond will have heard of the death of Vicky Phelan.
"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.
"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."