HEROES are not born, they are built.
Built by what they see around them, albeit from the very first days of existence.
Built from the sight of pain, poverty, misery and injustice. Built from the recognition that if there are not people on this planet who want to simply help others, then we are all doomed.
Down through history, there are many examples of such heroes – those who push their own well-being, health and peace of mind into second place ahead of a priority to extend a strong hand to those around them.
Ireland has a long and proud history of remarkable warrior women. Even our myths and legends were full of them.
There is no doubt that Vicky Phelan was a modern-day warrior woman, and a hero to so many men and women who had suffered at the hands of mass incompetence in our health system.
Diagnosed in 2014 with cancer, it was another three years before she was told the cancer could have been diagnosed much sooner, only for an inaccurate reading of her smear test.
She successfully sued the laboratory in Texas, but crucially refused to sign a gagging order. She knew, even then, that others had to be told what she knew, that the truth must out.
She since admitted she felt initially that maybe tens of patients had been misdiagnosed, but was shocked when the figure eventually ran to over 200.
Were it not for her decision to put her precious energy and time into telling the story so others could check if they were affected, many more might have died never realising the mistakes that had been made. And, more worryingly, the inaccuracies may have continued.
But Vicky refused to be silenced. When most other people would have chosen to spend their last years in the bosom of their families, she struck out to tell the world of the horrific injustices perpetrated on so many.
She rarely refused an interview or television appearance, unless her health dictated otherwise, but she often made appointments even when she wasn’t feeling her best – she had a undefeatable urge to continue to tell her story, the stories of so many other women – and to ensure that no other women would ever suffer the same fate.
What endeared her so readily to the Irish public was her unstoppable sense of humour, even on the more dark subject matter – the malfunction of her organs, the disruption to her sex life, the horrors of treatment – but she felt no element of the story should go untold. And with her instantly recognisable wide smile, she won over everybody – from women suffering the same journey, to lawyers advised to be reticent, to health executive chiefs and even our own often cynical politicians.
It was a measure of the woman that so many of our senior ministers sounded genuinely upset at her passing this week, despite knowing what a steely adversary she had been in their midst.
‘She stood up against the system and the normal conventions,’ noted Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Because of her efforts, many women’s lives have been protected, and will be protected in the future, said President Higgins.
Vicky Phelan was a great example of what can be done with persistence, patience, a willingness not just to speak out, but to listen intently to the responses, and to treat everyone with equal respect.
The old adage ‘we will not see her likes again’, borrowed from the Irish phrase ‘Ní Bheidh A Leithéid Arís Ann’, was used over and over again this week.
And while Vicky was undoubtedly a unique woman, a truly blazing star amongst us, we must hope that others will follow in her footsteps of challenging systems, shaking up the status quo and refusing to stay quiet on matters of such huge importance to us all.
Hero or warrior, Vicky Phelan was a force to be reckoned with. But let’s hope we do see her likes again.