Today, the University of Limerick honours Vicky Phelan, who, through her life, is transforming the lives of others.
Born Victoria Kelly in Mooncoin, County Kilkenny on October 28, 1974, Vicky is the eldest of five children born to John and Gaby. Vicky was a determined child, a quality that remains evident today. She attended Scoil Mhuire National School, Mooncoin and Mooncoin Vocational School.
Then, in 1993, she began her association with the University of Limerick, which we celebrate today, when she commenced her Bachelor of Arts in European Studies, from which she graduated in 1997.
That year, Vicky’s mentor and dear friend Professor Emerita Angela Chambers had the foresight to develop the Centre for Applied Language Studies, one of UL’s most prestigious research centres. Vicky Phelan was the very first person to register as a research student at the centre.
During that time, Vicky was acknowledged by the Alliance Française for her proficiency in the language. She taught at UL and worked as a translator for the European Commission.
As a researcher, Vicky Phelan developed skills that today are most evident: critical thinking and the ability to question, challenge, persuade and lead. These are the skills that, combined with her natural fortitude, have proven to be of utmost value to Vicky in the face of huge personal tragedy and in challenging the healthcare system in Ireland.
In 2001, Vicky Phelan was appointed to the University of Limerick’s International Education Division, a natural home for someone of her skills and experience. Here, her main role was to manage the Erasmus programmes. Vicky was a loyal, warm and professional colleague who was progressive in her approach and ambitious for the nascent international programme at UL. Through her efforts, UL grew its exchange programme and today it is the largest Erasmus programme in Ireland.
In 2004, Vicky left the University of Limerick to take up a new position with Waterford Institute of Technology; today, Vicky is WIT’s Director of Literacy Development.
Vicky Phelan’s professional achievements are many. However, she has also dedicated herself to her family – her husband, Jim, and her children, Amelia (12) and Darragh (7).
In 2014, Vicky Phelan was first diagnosed with cancer. Since it has returned, she has used her formidable determination and tenacity to challenge and question the medical service provided to her and other women.
In 2011, Vicky participated in the national cervical screening programme. Her test results were wrongly reported as normal, a fact that was withheld from her, and just two years later, she developed cervical cancer. Faced with a personal tragedy of this magnitude, it would have been understandable for Vicky to withdraw and to focus on her own needs. Instead, when she realised that what had happened to her was likely to have happened to others, she took the decision to make public her experience and expose the screening programme and the healthcare system to much-needed examination, something which is ongoing.
In her steadfast refusal to be silenced, Vicky Phelan has surrendered her anonymity and has become a national voice for the voiceless. In doing so, she has given immeasurable service to this country.
Vicky Phelan’s act of citizenship has resulted in an ongoing review of the cervical cancer screening service, the first review since the service was initiated a decade ago. She has also confronted the healthcare service in its inexplicable failure to communicate to the women who developed cervical cancer the fact that their screening tests were wrongly reported as normal. She has given up so much for the women of Ireland, empowering them to demand the truth.
Her experience, so articulately communicated, has already been the catalyst for the establishment of a redress scheme to financially compensate women with cervical cancer.
Vicky Phelan’s actions have helped to ensure that women will, in future, be better informed about their own health.
Underpinning her unwavering commitment to women’s health, Vicky is continuing to urge women to participate in the cervical screening programme.
Alongside the substantial undertaking of holding a national health service to account, Vicky Phelan has concurrently investigated available treatments and has participated in clinical trials. By doing so, Vicky is encouraging women to take control of their own health. In her words and in her actions, she cultivates a legacy of patient empowerment.
Hers are truly exceptional achievements.
The conferring of an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Limerick is reserved for those who have distinguished themselves, nationally or internationally, in the arts, sciences, industry, sport, social service or public service.
It is for the scale of her positive impact on women’s healthcare nationally and the resulting emphasis on the central position of the patient within that service that we honour Vicky Phelan today.
As a UL alumna and a former member of staff, Vicky Phelan exemplifies many of the traits this university endeavours to nurture in its students and staff.
The UL community is humbled by Vicky’s accomplishments, inspired by her example and proud to call her one of our own. It is a great honour for the university that Vicky accepts this honorary doctorate – the highest accolade that we can bestow.
Throughout history, it is often the ordinary acts of individuals that echo to create extraordinary results for all.
President, I present to you Vicky Phelan and ask that you confer upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.