“As soon as the doctor started to examine me, I could tell there was something wrong,” recalls McGovern. What was wrong was an advanced case of cervical cancer; one that had not been picked up on any of McGovern’s previous smears.McGovern was, of course, shocked and distressed at her diagnosis. At this stage, she had no thought of any kind of litigation; she felt it was quite possible that she had just been terribly unlucky She did, however, want to know exactly what had happened. The NHS code of good practice in such situations suggests that all previous smears should be looked at again, by the hospital that screened the most recent cervical smear prior to diagnosis.”The trouble was that nobody seemed to know what should be done to get a review,” says McGovern. “The first doctor I’d seen hadn’t believed I could possibly have had normal smears leading up to the diagnosis.
So I wrote a very polite letter to the chief executive of the last hospital who had tested me, St Helier, and asked them to review my tests in the light of the diagnosis.”McGovern then went through a gruelling course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the Royal Marsden hospital that made it difficult for her to follow up her initial approach. Eleven weeks later, St Helier finally responded; not to McGovern, but to their own patient help officer. The brief letter that was sent included a copy of the official guidelines, and said that McGovern’s former consultant would be happy to have an “informal chat” with her current doctor, but that he had been “too busy”, due to work and holidays, to review her tests.McGovern has worked in the NHS all her life. But she was so infuriated by this response that she decided to put her case in the hands of a lawyer It wasn’t money she was after.
“At this stage all I wanted was access to independent expert opinion; and I still thought I might well find that my smears had been read correctly. If they hadn’t been so damned difficult about setting up a review, if they had responded as they should have, I would have left the process in their hands.”McGovern contacted Sarah Harman, a campaigning lawyer with a history of success in misdiagnosis cases. Kingston hospital, and Ashford and St Peter’s hospitals were similarly slow to relinquish McGovern’s slides, but eventually all the hospitals in question handed over the tests. And Harman and an independent expert says that McGovern’s July 2000 smear at Ashford and St Peter’s did in fact show abnormalities, and that her August 2001 smear should have been reported not as “borderline”, but as seriously alarming.