MORE than 140 parents contacted a patient support group with harrowing stories of their treatment in maternity units across the country, prompted by the shocking revelations of an RTE documentary on the deaths of four babies in six years at Midlands Hospital Portlaoise.
Patient Focus said the flood of callers over the past two days included mothers whose babies had died or suffered during their births at Portlaoise hospital. They wondered whether the hospital had investigated their babies' births without informing them.
The failure to inform parents of investigations into the death of one baby, and the near-death of a second at the hospital, was described as "appalling" by the Minister for Health, James Reilly.
The Prime Time Investigates documentary revealed that the parents of a baby who died of a lack of oxygen at Portloaise hospital six years ago had been never told about a report into his death.
A baby who almost died in similar circumstances was also the subject of a report but the parents were also never told of its existence.
The HSE refused to elaborate yesterday on its efforts to trace the families, repeating an earlier statement it issued on Friday: "We intend to contact both families if possible, as soon as reasonably possible."
Brigid Doherty of Patient Focus said: "The pattern coming through so far is one of questionable ante-natal care, questionable labour ward care, and there are a large number of women ringing in about the death of their babies."
She said "one of the biggest things to come out" was that parents were not being told when something went wrong or getting explanations for why things went wrong.
She said a number of mothers "felt things were not quite right" and there were "a number of cases where people felt they were not listened to during labour, with adverse outcomes or damage caused to the baby". She said a helpline set up at the Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise was repeatedly reverting to answering machine yesterday, which was "unacceptable".
The advocacy group has been working with the families of babies who died at Portlaoise for some time. The group has called for a "wide ranging" investigation of the maternity unit there going back over 10 years.
The Prime Time documentary disclosed the cases of four babies who died in similar circumstances over six years, as key safety recommendations were ignored.
The babies were alive at the onset of labour but died either during the labour or within seven days of their birth at the hospital.
Despite reports into the babies' deaths, recommendations were not implemented.
The health watchdog, Hiqa, is expected to play a significant role in investigating the baby tragedies at Portlaoise hospital and how they were handled by hospital management.
The health watchdog has already planned to conduct a review of governance and patient safety at Portlaoise hospital this year, but its remit may now change to pay particular attention to its troubled maternity unit.
Staffing is likely to be a major focus of any investigation, with revelations that midwives at the hospital had written to the previous government in 2006, warning that under-staffing of the unit was putting mothers and babies at risk.
John Whelan, a Labour senator in Laois Offaly, said the public reaction suggested that there may be more cases than those already disclosed. "There are expectant mothers worried and fretting now. We need absolute clarity and reassurance. Part of that is for the HSE to come clean on all aspects of this," he said.
The Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore sought to reassure expectant mothers yesterday.
"What happened in Portlaoise should not have happened. No parent should have to go through that.
"This country is one of the safest in the world," he told reporters at the Mansion House in Dublin. He said that the Irish maternity service was very good and very safe. He added that the Chief Medical Officer had been asked to report to the Minister for Health on what had happened in Portlaoise and on what steps now needed to be taken.