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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Families protest outside Cork hospital over incineration of their babies' organs
Eighteen families found out the organs of their dead babies were incinerated overseas without their consent.

EIGHTEEN FAMILIES WHO found out that the organs of their dead babies were incinerated overseas without their consent or knowledge held an emotional protest outside Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) this morning.

The protestors included Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan alongside their son Lewis who was born on 18 September 2019.

Tragically, the couple lost their son Lee, Lewis’ twin, the day after they were born. It was also the birthday of new mother Leona.

The couple had been told at the 16-week scan that there were complications with one of the twins and the outcome of those complications would not fully be understood until they were born.

Lee was placed in the neonatal unit after his birth but deteriorated rapidly. The family managed to have Lee baptised alongside his brother before he passed away in his mother’s arms.

Leona said that arising out of the circumstances of the birth, they were encouraged to have a postmortem examination for Lee.

They decided to donate his organs for medical research in a bid to find some meaning from the tragedy and in the hope of helping other families. However, they were supposed to get the organs back for burial.

In May 2020, Leona received a call from the hospital to say that the organs retained at the postmortem had been incinerated. Her heart, she stresses, “split in half”.

“You already don’t know how to deal with being happy for having one baby and heartbroken for another,” she said.

“I would do absolutely anything to have them growing up hand in hand. Every milestone Lewis takes — it is bittersweet. We are so happy and lucky and proud of Lewis but I would do anything to see him going to pre-school or the park with his brother.

“And then this happens. When we found out, we didn’t know what to feel.

“Right now, our focus is on getting answers. There is no compassion anymore. We are just a number. They are not thinking of us as families.

“We are here to get answers as to why this happened to us all. We won’t go away until we get those answers. None of us want to be out here protesting. We all wanted to grieve for our children behind closed doors.”

Leona said her pain was further compounded when she found out that what had happened with Lee was not an isolated incident.

“This did not help the grieving process. It has put a pause to our grieving process. I asked myself ‘why did I donate his organs?’ It took the goodness away.

The parents found through the Freedom of Information Act that other families had been impacted.

“It was basically an email saying that senior staff were going to have a light breakfast to discuss how they were going to tell the 18 families involved. I couldn’t imagine 17 other families feeling like us. When were are all together they will have to listen to us,” Leona said.

The impacted families are calling on the HSE to publish the findings of a report in to why multiple organs of eighteen dead babies, all born at the hospital, were sent to Belgium for incineration without the knowledge or permission of their parents.

Laura Kelleher returned to Ireland from Australia to join the protest. Her stillborn baby girl, Hope, was delivered at the hospital at 25 weeks on 3 November 2019.

She said that she and her husband Fintan had made the journey to Cork from Perth in the latter stages of her pregnancy. She spent about three months in hospital after she experienced complications in her pregnancy.

Hope’s heart stopped on 31 October 2019 and she was born stillborn three days later.

Laura said they called their baby Hope as that was all they had in the latter stages of the pregnancy when complications arose.

She said they returned to Perth in January 2020 after the postmortem was completed.

“We signed a consent form that once the organs were released that they would be buried in the graveyard in the hospital. When we did return back to Perth, that is what we thought would happen once the organs were released.”

The couple only received postmortem results for baby Hope in September 2021. She had died of natural causes but the couple say the delay in receiving the results was agonising in itself without the trauma that followed.

The couple say they coincidentally received a phone call from a staff member for the hospital in September 2021 on the same day an RTÉ Investigates documentary on the matter was due to air.

However, Laura indicated they only found out about the incineration of the organs of baby Hope through social media and said she still finds it difficult to believe what happened.

“We thought the service we were getting from the hospital was fantastic and all that time it was just a letdown. They could have said it straight out what happened.”

“On the [RTÉ Investigates] programme, there was a document, and we saw there was a date on it which was the date of Hope’s postmortem. ”

The couple then contacted CUMH to ask if Hope’s organs had been incinerated and they were informed that was the case.

Laura added that they still want answers and are awaiting on the publication of a review.

“We keep being told that they have answers but they are keeping us waiting.”

Meanwhile, Katie Quilligan, another of the impacted parents, said they “want to know who signed off on this and why.”

Her baby boy, James, died two days after he was born prematurely at CUMH in January 2020.

She only found out what had happened to James’s organs after his passing the night before the incineration story broke on RTÉ Investigates.

“It was heartbreaking and we were clueless about what to do next,” she said.

I didn’t sleep for two weeks, just trying to process what we had learned. I was ringing the hospital and my own doctors trying to get answers, and we’re still waiting for answers.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to fully accept or process what happened until we get those answers.”

She said that waiting “is like going through the grieving process all over again” and that “the HSE is letting us down – the parents who are involved in this, and 18 babies”.

When the revelations were made on the RTÉ programme, the HSE vowed to have an independent review. However, the parents say they are still waiting for the report.

Katie said they were first told they would have answers by last November.

“But November has come and gone, and we are well passed it now and we are still waiting for answers,” she said.

“The first draft is ready but we’ve been told that the HSE is under legal advice not to give it to us.

“The fact that it’s even gone to legal advice is worrying. What have they found, what’s going to come out? They should just tell us what happened,” she said.

“This has caused a lot of depression and anxiety, but I am now driven to get the answers for my son’s sake.

“And until we get them, I’m not going to be quiet. I want my baby’s voice heard and the rest of the babies too.”

Another impacted parent Sarah Jane Connolly said she wants answers for her little girl Nora.

“We all do. She can’t stand up for herself, she’s not here,” she said.

In a statement, the South/Southwest Hospital group said the external review commissioned by the hospital is ongoing.

“The review team has and continues to maintain regular contact with the families who participated in the review,” the statement said.

“Once completed the final report will be shared with all relevant stakeholders including the families involved.”

It said it would be “inappropriate to comment while the external expert review, which was commissioned by CUH is underway”.

“Equally CUH must respect the confidential nature of patient information and cannot make public comment or provide details associated with same.”

Olivia Kelleher
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