There are three investigations under way into the disposal by by Cork University Maternity Hospital of the organs of 18 babies by incineration, the Dáil has been told.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly described the hospital sending the organs for incineration to Belgium without the knowledge or consent of bereaved parents, as "completely unacceptable and against the guidelines".
Mr Donnelly said he only learned about the disposal from RTÉ’s Prime Time Investigates, which broke the story.
The Minister said three investigations are under way, two by the hospital and one by the Health Service Executive (HSE), into how the perinatal organs were stored in the hospital mortuary between May 2019 and March 2020 and later incinerated.
The first is a systems analysis review on what happened and why and what can be done to prevent a recurrence and is expected in November. The second is a regional perinatal service requirements review and the Minister sought the third review from the HSE for “absolute assurance” that the practice has not occurred at any other hospital.
Opening a Dáil debate on the issue, Mr Donnelly said he was deeply concerned by the issue.
The families involved “had already been through the unimaginable tragedy of having lost a beloved child, and it is unacceptable that their child’s organs were disposed of in this way. This simply should not have happened.”
Independent TD Catherine Connolly asked what it said about the health service and the Department of Health that the Minister only learned about such a serious incident through the media.
Ms Connolly said when the department was contacted in 2020, it asked if it was a serious incident and was told “no” but “there is a risk of adverse publicity”. Ms Connolly said there was concern about publicity “but not about the patients, the families or perinatal organs”.
Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould said one mother whose son was born at 24 weeks and lived for one day received a phone call on Monday that "something" affecting her baby would be in the media but she only found out the details when it emerged on television.
The Minister acknowledged some families disputed the “categoric” statements from the HSE and the hospital that the families were contacted in May last year with a phone call and registered letter, but if this was not the case he would “act immediately on that”.
A source at the hospital said management contacted the families within weeks of discovering what had happened to the remains.
Bereavement nurses at the hospital rang the 18 families on May 11th and May 12th, 2020, to say that organs removed from their babies at postmortem had been sent to Antwerp for incineration, and the phone calls were followed up with registered letters on May 18th, the hospital source said.
It is understood HSE management at the South/South West Hospital Group, which includes both Cork University Maternity Hospital and the adjacent Cork University Hospital, acknowledged that a serious error had been made and an apology was offered to the families.
Staff at the maternity hospital learned of what had happened around April 21st 2020 when pathology staff at CUH 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.
It was then 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.
According to RTÉ Investigates, internal Cork University Hospital correspondence states mortuary staff were aware in early 2020 that its burial space for the internment of organs was full and unsuccessful attempts were made to find an alternative plot in which to bury the infant organs.
However, a source at the maternity hospital said that while the shared plot at St Mary’s Curraghkippane Cemetery, where infant organs had been buried, had reached capacity, a shared plot owned by the maternity hospital at St Michael’s Cemetery was available.
A source at the maternity hospital said: “There was capacity in St Michael’s so there is no reason why this could not have been resolved without any organs being sent for incineration, which is the most frustrating aspect of all of this – the whole episode and the upset caused to families was totally unnecessary.”