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Cork University Maternity Hospital apologises after babies' organs were incinerated

The organs of 18 babies were sent to Belgium along with clinical waste, prompting an investigation.

Leona Bermingham, a mother who will be interviewed on RTÉ tonight
Leona Bermingham, a mother who will be interviewed on RTÉ tonight
Image: RTÉ Prime Time

Updated Sep 28th 2021, 8:58 PM

THE SOUTH/SOUTH West Hospital Group (SSWHG) and Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) have apologised to families whose babies’ organs were incinerated abroad without their consent or knowledge.

The incinerations occurred on two occasions last year when the organs of 18 babies were sent to Belgium along with clinical waste.

The revelations are included in an RTÉ Investigates report due to air on Prime Time tonight.

When asked for comment on the programme, a spokesperson for the SSWHG, which operates CUMH, told The Journal the group “deeply regret that this distressing incident occurred and acknowledge that a serious error was made, and are truly sorry for the additional distress this has caused to grieving families”.

A statement noted that hospital management “became aware of the incident in late April 2020 and on 11th and 12th May 2020 all parents who were affected by the incident were contacted and full disclosure took place”.

“Recognising that it would be difficult for bereaved parents to be told about the incident, Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) volunteered to take the lead role in openly disclosing the error and apologising to the parents.

“The supports of the CUMH bereavement and pregnancy loss team has been and remains in place to provide ongoing contact, care and support as required by the parents. This has been provided not only as a result of the incident but also in acknowledgement of the impact of the delay in the review process.”

The spokesperson said the incident is “confined to perinatal organs which were stored in the hospital mortuary between May 2019 and March 2020″.

The incinerations occurred on two occasions: 25 March and 2 April 2020.

Cork University Hospital commissioned an external review to be carried out into the incident in May 2020. However, the process has been delayed and remains ongoing.

“Disappointingly there were significant delays in the review process, most notably in getting the appropriate external expertise that a review of this nature requires. However the review did commence in late April this year and it is expected will be completed late October/early November,” the spokesperson noted.

“The review’s findings and recommendations will be shared with the families affected and then with the wider HSE. The review will establish the factual circumstances leading up to the incident.”

Mortuary capacity

The spokesperson said, “in order to provide some context”, the incarcerations “occurred when hospitals were preparing to significantly increase their mortuary capacity for mass fatalities due to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

“In March 2020 it was widely reported that healthcare expert epidemiologists were predicting there could be between 80,000 and 100,000 deaths in Ireland from Covid-19.”

They added that CUH has “categorically established that all perinatal organs retained since 2 April 2020 have been buried and there is no possibility that this matter has affected other families beyond those already identified”.

“The South/South West Hospital Group and CUH deeply regret that this distressing incident occurred and acknowledge that a serious error was made, and are truly sorry for the additional distress this has caused to grieving families,” the spokesperson noted.

Speaking to reporters today, Cork North-Central TD of Solidarity Mick Barry said that Covid-19 can be “no excuse” for what has happened. 

“I will be raising this issue today under order of business. I think time should be set aside for some brief statements on this but also for the minister to answer some questions. What happened at Cork University Maternity Hospital is completely unacceptable,” he said. 

We need to be assured now that the pandemic, which affected other Irish hospitals, that nothing similar happened in any other Irish hospital and there needs to be a report with no cover ups.

Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys said earlier that the Department of Health was seeking a review on what happened. 

“This has to be very distressing for the families concerned and, as a mother, our thoughts are with them, it’s not easy for them. Just to say the Minister for Health has commissioned a review into this matter and we’ll await the outcome of that review,” she said. 

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A number of TDs called for the Dáil to hold a debate on the issues. 

The Taoiseach said he was anxious to ensure that such a debate take place this week on the matter.

The fact this was done without the consent of the parents was “cruel and unacceptable”, he said, stating that the health minister is now seeking assurances from other hospitals that this has not happened elsewhere.

Tonight Prime Time will interview Cork couple Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan, who lost one of their twin boys.

On 18 Sept 2019 Leona and Glenn’s twin boys, Lee and Lewis, were delivered at 33 weeks by emergency c-section at CUMH. Hours later baby Lee sadly died. Because of the circumstances of his death, Leona and Glenn were encouraged to agree to a post-mortem.

In mid-May 2020, Leona received a phone call from CUMH to say that Lee’s retained organs had been incinerated and they wouldn’t be able to get them back.

Leona said: “My son’s brain went into a bin, as if it was a piece of rubbish, you put rubbish in a bin. Why would you put my beautiful son’s brain into a bin?”

Documents released under Freedom of Information legislation revealed that the organs of a total of 18 babies were sent to Belgium for incineration without the knowledge or consent of their bereaved parents.

The RTÉ Investigates report will air at 9.35pm on RTÉ One.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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