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State pathologists observed 'multiple bodies' on trolleys at Waterford mortuary over 'years'

Controversy about conditions at the mortuary first arose earlier this year.

University Hospital in Waterford
University Hospital in Waterford
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

BODIES OF DECEASED individuals were stored on trolleys at University Hospital Waterford (UHW) years before issues at the facility arose last December, it has been claimed.

In a letter to officials in the Department of Justice and Equality in May, Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis said that he had observed “multiple bodies” lying on trolleys at the hospital’s mortuary over a period of years.

Curtis wrote to the Department to corroborate claims by four consultants, who raised concerns about the state of the mortuary to the HSE South/South West Hospital Group late last year, which were first reported in the Waterford News and Star.

The consultants described the facility as “unsafe for staff, visitors and the general public”, and that inadequate refrigeration facilities meant that bodies were left lying on corridors “leaking body fluids onto the floor”, leading to closed-coffin funerals for the deceased.

Curtis’ letter, seen by TheJournal.ie, informed the Department on 7 May that he and his fellow Deputy State Pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan were “morally and ethically obliged” to back up the consultants’ claims.

“The consultant pathologists at Waterford described the situation at their mortuary where bodies are left on trollies [sic] in the corridor. This description has been declared to be lacking corroboration,” it read.

My colleague, Dr Linda Mulligan, and I can in fact provide corroboration as, on each of several occasions over the years, we have observed multiple bodies lying on trollies in the corridor.

Claims initially questioned

Questions about the consultants’ claims at official level arose within days of the publication of the story in the Waterford News and Star on 24 April.

Responding to the claims on 29 April, the South/South West Hospital Group said it had not received any incident report in relation to the issues raised at the mortuary, and that there was “no evidence” to substantiate the consultants’ claims.

However, the group previously said a mobile refrigeration unit would be installed on site to store bodies in the short to medium-term, before a new mortuary was built at the hospital.

The day after the hospital group’s statement, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also said he had seen no evidence to support the claims, describing reports about the mortuary as a “strange story”.

Then on 2 May, Varadkar said that investigating the consultants’ claims was not a priority, that there was “a dispute about the facts”, and that a coroner and local undertakers had not backed up the reports.

3466 Hospital Protest_90570194 Protesters demonstrate outside University Hospital Waterford in May following the Taoiseach's comments about the mortuary Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

The Taoiseach was subsequently criticised for casting doubt on the claims, before apologising and admitting he was wrong on 4 May after new evidence about the situation at the mortuary came to light.

“Over the course of the week, corroborating statements have come to light and complaints have been made that I believe support the views expressed by the four consultants,” he said. “This is one I got wrong.”

Unsuitable for State autopsies

On 7 May, Curtis wrote to a Department of Justice official to back up the consultants’ claims, but his letter, released under Freedom of Information legislation, said neither he or Mulligan would make a statement on the matter.

“While we are morally and ethically obliged to state our position with regard to corroboration, we would have no statement or comment for the media,” he said.

Curtis also criticised the suitability of the mortuary at the hospital for State autopsies, informing the Department that he had “urgently” secured the use of alternative facilities in Dublin, Cork and Tullamore to carry them out.

“Obviously if the facility is unfit for hospital and coronial autopsies, it is even more unsuitable for State forensic autopsies in the course of which sensitive and delicate trace evidence may be sampled,” he added.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice confirmed that the State Pathologist’s Office had made the South/South West Hospital Group aware of the issues outlined by Curtis, but had not been made aware of problems at the facility by him previously.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health confirmed that it had received confirmation that autopsies would no longer be carried out at the facility, and that it had discussed the issues raised by Curtis with the HSE.

It added:

The Department has not received any other correspondence, either directly or indirectly, from Dr Curtis or the Office of the State Pathologist with regard to the mortuary at UHW.
The HSE has been fully aware of the challenge associated with the mortuary infrastructure at UHW for some considerable time.

An independent review of the mortuary at UHW has also been launched, which will examine management and governance and internal processes at the facility to ensure that they are consistent with contemporary practice.

The HSE says that the review team aims to complete its final report in September, when its findings will inform the effective operation of the mortuary in future.

A spokesperson for the South/South West Hospital Group told TheJournal.ie that because an independent review was underway, it would not be appropriate to comment on Curtis’ letter.

However, the group added that 13 additional refrigeration spaces had been made available at UHW.

Yesterday, documents released to TheJournal.ie’s investigative platform Noteworthy revealed that the hospital’s new mortuary would have cost at least €1 million less to build had it been given the go-ahead as recommended two years ago.

The facility had already been deemed unfit for purpose in 2004, and a new mortuary plan was given the green light in 2014 when it was included in the HSE’s capital plan.

However the project remained in a queue, without a firm commitment of funding, before a tender for the construction of a new mortuary at the hospital was issued in May.

Capital funding has since been confirmed for the new mortuary, which is expected to be completed within two years.

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