Babies’ families contacted within weeks of organ incineration being discovered

Hospital wrote to families of dead infants to acknowledge serious error and offer apology

Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) contacted the families of 18 dead infants whose organs were incinerated without their knowledge within weeks of discovering the issue last year, The Irish Times has learned.

Bereavement nurses at the hospital rang the families on May 11th and May 12th, 2020 to say that organs removed at postmortem had been sent for incineration.

A hospital source said registered letters were sent on May 18th, 2020, following an initial telephone call, signed by Professor John Higgins, the clinical director of Ireland South West Women and Infants Directorate.

In the letter, he said the hospital group, as had been indicated in the initial call, offered to meet with any of the families “if you wish to discuss this with us in person”, and would continue to be available by telephone “if you have queries”.

“Once again, I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely apologise for any anxiety that this has caused you, or your families,” wrote Prof. Higgins. Two families accepted the offered meeting, one did so remotely with CUMH staff, while the other met CUMH staff in person.

In the telephone calls, the families were told that their babies’ organ remains had been incinerated, hospital sources insist, though it is not clear what level of detail was given, or whether it was made clear that the remains had been sent to Antwerp.

Staff at CUMH learned of what had happened around April 21st 2020 when pathology staff at Cork University Hospital discovered that organs removed from infants between January and March 2020 had been sent in April 2020, along with clinical hospital waste, for incineration in Antwerp.

Further checks were carried out and it was learned that an earlier consignment of organs, which had been removed from infants between May 2019 and December 2019, had been sent for incineration in Antwerp in December 2019 and that the two groups related to a total of 18 infants.

Criticism

This week, RTÉ’s Prime Time Investigates revealed details of the incineration, including fears held by hospital management in May 2020 that publicity would lead to criticism.

The engagement with the families, who had given consent for the removal of organ on condition that they would later be properly buried, took place three weeks after hospital staff discovered the issue.

The organs could not have been buried at a plot owned by Cork University Hospital (CUH), but used by CUMH, at St Mary’s Curraghkippane Cemetery, because it was full.

However, another plot owned by CUMH at St Michael’s Cemetery was available: “(It) has plenty of room. These infant organs could have been buried there”, a CUMH source, speaking anonymously, said.

“There is no reason why this could not have been resolved without any organs being sent for incineration,” said the source. “The whole episode and the upset caused to families was totally unnecessary.”

An external review ordered by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, headed up by an expert in perinatal pathology, will be completed by late October or early November. Its findings and recommendations will be shared with the families affected.

* This article has been amended since publication to clarify the sequencing of the contacts with the families, and to give details from the letter to the families concerned

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times

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