In February 2019 Julie O’Connor was sitting up in her hospice bed, with husband Kevin close by. Before that moment, she had undergone a number of different tests during a three-year spell, which had all said that she didn’t have cervical cancer. Unfortunately, though, those results proved incorrect, leading the pair to record a powerful message at the aforementioned facility.
A resident of Thornbury, England, Julie decided to visit her physician back in 2014 after noticing some worrying issues. From there, the doctors then examined her and claimed that nothing was wrong, ruling out cancer. However, that didn’t signal the end of her troubles, as we’re about to find out.
By February 2017 Julie was still making frequent trips to the hospital, hoping to find some answers to her predicament. But around a month later, she looked to get another opinion at a private facility, where the diagnosis was finally made. Sadly, the Thornbury resident did indeed have cervical cancer.
At that point, Julie started her treatment at the hospital, as she tried to fight off the disease. Yet despite her best efforts, she found herself in a hospice in February 2019. So with her condition worsening, the deathly ill woman decided to record a video alongside her partner, where they shared an upsetting message.
Even though there have been countless advancements in medical technology down the years, cancer is still an incredibly prominent disease across the world. To give you a better idea of the numbers, the Cancer Research U.K. website unveiled a few statistics from 2018. And the figures were certainly eye-opening.
According to the website, 17 million people were diagnosed with cancer in 2018. In addition to that, over nine-and-a-half million individuals succumbed to the illness during that period as well. Meanwhile, Cancer Research U.K. also looked back on some previous records regarding a very specific form of the disease.
Indeed, the charity shared a few statistics about cervical cancer on its website too. For instance, between 2014 and 2016, an average of 3,192 women were diagnosed with the ailment in the United Kingdom. The site then revealed that more than 850 sufferers died from 2015 to 2017, but that’s not all.
As it turns out, cervical cancer can be avoided if you follow the correct steps. In fact, Cancer Research U.K. claimed that over 99 percent of the diagnoses were “preventable” in Great Britain back in 2015. And there’s a fair bit more to be said about the disease, as we will find out.
The cancer begins with a change in the cells in a woman’s cervix, the area of the body that connects the uterus and the vagina. Once it has begun, the cancerous cells can be found in the deeper tissues of the cervix. After that, it might spread elsewhere in the body, particularly to the vagina, rectum, liver, lungs and bladder.
It’s most common for cervical cancer to be an outcome of being infected by human papillomavirus. A vaccine can prevent this infection. And even if cervical cancer is contracted, its growth is only slow, so in most cases there is time to discover it and give timely treatment.
Pap tests provide vital screening for cervical cancer, and because they catch it often, it is a lot less lethal than it might otherwise be. The disease is most common in women aged between 35 and 44, although 15 percent of instances are found in women who are more than 65 years old, particularly if they haven’t been screened regularly.
Unfortunately for Julie O’Connor and her family, she was one of the latest women to be diagnosed with the disease in 2017. However, when compared to some of the more standard cases, her story proved to be incredibly troubling. It all started some three years before, as Julie saw her physician.
Earlier in 2014, Julie ended a decade-long stay in Germany with her husband Kevin O’Connor and their two kids. They packed their bags for Thornbury, a small town just outside of Bristol, England. When they got back, the mom was keen to maintain a routine that she had developed over the previous few years.
You see, the hospitals in Germany offered smear tests each year, allowing women to keep on top of their health. Unsurprisingly, Julie didn’t want to abandon that process after leaving the country, as things were slightly different in England. Due to her background as an N.H.S. nurse, she would’ve known that there was a bigger gap between examinations there.
So with that in mind, Julie booked an appointment at Southmead Hospital in September 2014. Before then, the mother had noticed some potentially worrying issues with her body, but those concerns were seemingly put to bed after the test. When looking at the results, the doctors said that she didn’t have cervical cancer.
Regardless of those findings, though, Julie’s symptoms didn’t clear up, emerging again in 2015. As for what she did next, the Thornbury resident touched upon her plight over the course of an interview in April 2018. During that conversation with Bristol Live, she looked back on a significant doctor’s appointment.
Julie recalled, “In 2015 I started to bleed, and I went to the GP and she was a bit concerned when she examined me. So [she] referred me to Southmead. But straight away doctors there said it’s not cancer and took me off the cancer pathway. They said the tests came back negative, and they thought it was hormonal because of my age.”
“They gave me tablets [to] take over the next few months,” Julie continued. “And [they] said if that didn’t work, I should go and get [a cervix coil] fitted. So all of this took several months.” Her condition still didn’t show signs of improvement after that, so her physician sent her to the medical facility again.
On that occasion, Julie was given a potential explanation by those at the gynaecological department of the facility. According to them, she was suffering with “cervical ectropion,” which causes the cervix to haemorrhage blood. However, that assessment didn’t go down too well with the nurse’s doctor, as we’re about to find out.
Julie’s physician was convinced that cervical ectropion wasn’t to blame, yet her thoughts seemed to fall on deaf ears. Given what was happening, the mom-of-two eventually made a big decision in 2017, nearly three years on from that first test. She was desperate to get a second opinion on her worrying symptoms.
Julie told Bristol Live, “From then on, I went back to Southmead Hospital about every two months. [But] I was so sick and tired of the whole thing, so I decided to use the private health insurance I had with work. I rang [health insurer] Bupa and went to the Spire hospital and saw one of their gynaecologists.”
Following that decision, Julie finally got a definitive answer, bringing all of the uncertainty to an end. She continued, “Within 30 seconds of [the gynaecologist] examining me, he said ‘it looks like cervical cancer to me’ and got me in for some tests within two days. I was really just in shock.”
“We had seen six doctors at Southmead over three years, and we had the conversation with them asking ‘is this cancer?’” Julie added. “It was really difficult to accept. Then [the gynaecologist] told me the growth was 4.5 centimeters [1.77 inches]. I was horrified.” Sadly, the bad news didn’t conclude there either.
To begin with, the doctors believed that the cancer hadn’t spread beyond Julie’s pelvis, yet that wasn’t the case. In fact, the disease had moved to her back and hips. As a result of her condition, the nurse then underwent both radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment to stop it metastasizing further.
Due to the treatment, Julie went on to lose the majority of her left thigh muscle, while her left hip also needed replacing. By April 2018, though, she knew that she wasn’t going to get better. So on that note, the Thornbury resident made one last point during her interview with Bristol Live.
Julie explained to the website, “It’s too late now to cure me. I am having chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but all they can do is give me palliative care to prolong my life. If they had caught [the cervical cancer] back in 2014 or even 2015 it could’ve been a completely different story.”
“My main concern now is making sure that other women who had tests back then are aware that if they are having ongoing symptoms, they should challenge the results and get retested,” Julie concluded. “The last thing I want to do is put people off having smears, but just to question things if you are having symptoms like I was.”
Some ten months on from that interview, Julie’s condition had deteriorated to the point where she was now staying in a hospice. Due to her situation, she and her partner Kevin wanted to share another message with the public in February 2019. The couple decided to film a short video from her room, airing their collective thoughts.
As the video starts, we see that Julie is propped up in her hospice bed, looking incredibly frail. Kevin is sitting beside her on the right, and he begins to speak to the camera. He says, “I’m Kevin O’Connor, and I’m here with my beautiful wife Julie at the St. Peter’s Hospice.”
Kevin continues, “[This is] after the last few years where Southmead North Bristol Trust failed to diagnose and mistreated Julie from 2014 to 2017. We’ve been campaigning for the last two years for a wider review into the cervical smear screening [process].” At this point, Julie’s husband then explains why they wanted to film this message.
“What we want to do is [film] this video to show all of the directors what they’ve done to me and Julie, and our family,” Kevin reveals. “[And] we want to ensure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else. We hold them fully accountable, whilst the pathologist and the gynaecologist, I hold them responsible.”
After Kevin’s outpouring of emotion, Julie is then encouraged to share her thoughts as well. Despite being deathly ill at this point, the mom-of-two acknowledges the camera with a response. Due to her condition, she barely rises above a whisper, but her strong words more than make up for it.
Julie says, “I think it took six attempts for the cancer to be diagnosed. It’s disgusting [that] I have been suffering the way I have, and I continue to suffer.” Just a few days on from that conversation, the nurse sadly passed away at the hospice on February 4, 2019. She was just 49 years old.
Before Julie’s passing, she and Kevin did file a lawsuit against the hospital, ahead of a hearing in January 2020. Over the course of that inquiry, the latter was given the opportunity to speak again. He subsequently detailed the moment when his partner was told about the severity of her cancer in the fall of 2017.
Kevin told the inquiry, “At this point Julie was advised the initial scan had been wrongly reported, and the metastases could be seen in the original imaging and should have been picked up at the time. I am extremely concerned that a proper wider independent investigation has not taken place.”
“This negligence is of serious public concern and should scrutinise present and past decisions,” Kevin added to his statement. “There may be other victims who have received false negative pathology reports, and false gynaecology clinician examinations, at the North Bristol N.H.S. Trust who need to be reviewed.” And the hearing didn’t end there.
Indeed, a coroner named Maria Voisin reviewed Julie’s case, before delivering her verdict. According to Voisin, her death was a result of “natural causes contributed to by neglect.” Along with a gynecologist, she also confirmed that the mom would’ve avoided her ultimate fate if the original smear test had been read correctly.
Meanwhile, one of the North Bristol Trust executives shared their reaction to Voisin’s conclusion at the inquest. Tim Whittlestone plies his trade as the deputy medical director, and he revealed that they “accepted” her view of what happened. From there, Whittlestone then aired his own thoughts in light of the hearing.
Speaking to U.K. newspaper The Guardian, Whittlestone began by focusing on the errors leading up to Julie’s passing. He said, “Firstly I would like to repeat on behalf of North Bristol N.H.S. Trust our sincere apology for the mistakes we made in failing to diagnose Julie’s cancer.” After that, the director made a couple more points.
Whittlestone added, “I would also like to say how sorry we are to her loving family and friends for causing them pain, distress and loss. North Bristol has investigated these errors, and more importantly we’ve learnt lessons from our mistakes. I would like to reassure patients that as a result of Julie, we have improved the way we examine patients and diagnose cervical cancer.”