Minister asks hospitals if baby organs destroyed without consent of parents

Taoiseach calls incident at Cork University Maternity Hospital ‘cruel and unacceptable’

The South/South West Hospital Group, which is responsible for the Cork hospital, said in a statement that it has apologised to the 18 families. Photograph: Google Street View

The South/South West Hospital Group, which is responsible for the Cork hospital, said in a statement that it has apologised to the 18 families. Photograph: Google Street View

 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has asked hospitals around the State if they sent organs taken from babies who died in their facilities away for incineration without the knowledge or consent of bereaved parents.

The request follows revelations in an RTÉ Investigates programme about Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) sending organs from 18 babies, which were retained in its mortuary after postmortems, to Belgium along with clinical waste for disposal.

The South/South West Hospital Group, which is responsible for CUMH, said an external expert group was reviewing how the incident happened and was expected to present a report by early November.

The group said it had apologised to the families of the 18 babies about the organs being sent for incineration rather than being buried or cremated “as had been agreed to by all of the parents prior to a postmortem”.

The group said it “deeply regrets that this distressing incident occurred and acknowledges that a serious error was made”.

“This action occurred when hospitals were preparing to significantly increase their mortuary capacity for mass fatalities due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said, adding that tens of thousands of Covid-19 related deaths had been predicted by epidemiologists at the time.

It said the findings and any recommendations arising from the review would be shared with the affected families and the HSE.

Shocked

Leona Bermingham told RTÉ Investigates that she and her partner Glenn Callanan were “shocked” to be informed by CUMH in May 2020 that their baby son Lee’s brain had been incinerated in Antwerp. He died in September 2019 hours after his birth.

“Our world came crashing down around us,” she said. “My son’s brain went into a bin, as if it was a piece of rubbish…Why would you put my beautiful son’s brain into a bin?”

According to HSE guidelines, relatives should be informed of their options in relation to the sensitive disposal of organs retained for postmortem. They should be given the option of burial or cremation of retained organs arranged by either themselves or the hospital.

The HSE standards document was developed in response to the 2006 Madden Report, which looked at postmortem practice and organ retention of children under 12 who died between 1970 and 2000 in Ireland.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that the destruction of infants’ organs without their parents knowing was “cruel and unacceptable”.

He said Mr Donnelly “is seeking assurances from every other site across the country that this did not occur”.He said he was keen to facilitate a debate on the issue after it was raised by a number of TDs.

‘Beyond belief’

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said “this is not the first scandal or upset around organ retention. It is beyond belief that we are at this point” and that the espisode was in breach of HSE guidelines dating back to 2012.

“So we need answers we know we need to know why this happened,” she said adding that the Minister should address the House as a matter of urgency and answer questions and “start to give answers and assurances to those families in particular and to the wider community,” she said.

The hospital group said CUMH management became aware of the incident in late April 2020 and that all affected parents were contacted and “full disclosure” was made on May 11th and 12th.

The group said the incident was confined to perinatal organs stored in the hospital mortuary between May 2019 and March of last year.

It said all perinatal organs retained since April 2nd of last year have been buried and there is “no possibility that this matter has affected other families beyond those already identified”.

In a statement, the HSE said all hospital groups had “confirmed in writing that they were fully compliant with the HSE Standards and Recommended Practices for Post Mortem Examination Services”.

Full review

However, it said that arising from recent concerns the national director for acute operations had asked all hospital groups to conduct a full review of compliance against the national standards “with specific reference to issues relating to consent, storage and disposal to ensure consistent compliance at individual patient level”.

“Arising from review of the results, the HSE Healthcare Audit Team may conduct further independent reviews at hospital or national level.”

The HSE said that in the case of University Hospital Limerick, it is fully compliant with the Standards in relation to adult post mortem services.

“However neonatal post mortems at the hospital have been undertaken by external service providers. The hospital can confirm compliance in this area since 2019 and is currently contacting the pathologists involved in earlier post mortems to get assurance on compliance prior to 2019.”

The HSE said in the event of any non-compliance, the hospitals concerned would undertake open disclosure in line with the HSE policy.

RTÉ Investigates report Losing Lee will be broadcast on Tuesday night at 9.35pm.