An investigation into the incineration of the organs of 18 babies which were shipped abroad with clinical waste is underway in Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH), RTÉ have reported.
Reports state that the organs of the babies were shipped to Belgium with clinical waste to be incinerated in March and April 2020, without the knowledge or consent of the bereaved parents.
The incidents occurred on March 25 and April 2, 2020, the South/Southwest Hospital Group confirmed.
The organs had been retained in Cork University Hospital (CUH) in storage following post-mortem examinations. HSE protocol dictates that the organs should have been returned to parents or either buried or cremated in a sensitive nature, with the consent of the parent(s).
The interment space for organs was full in early 2020, meaning some of the organs were held for months in storage following post-mortem.
A decision was then made to send the organs of 18 babies to Belgium, along with clinical waste, to be destroyed.
This was out of “absolute necessity and desperation” due to the ever-worsening Covid-19 pandemic, according to hospital correspondence seen by RTÉ Investigates.
The families of all 18 babies were then contacted after CUMH learned CUH had sent the organs for incineration, informing them what had happened and to inform them their deceased childrens’ organs were irretrievable.
In a statement to Independent.ie, South/Southwest Hospital Group said: “The South/South West Hospital Group, CUH and CUMH have apologised to 18 families whose perinatal organs that had been retained by the hospital were sent for incineration instead of being buried or cremated as had been agreed to by all of the parents prior to a post mortem.
“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”.
The group said hospital management became aware of the incident in late April 2020 and all parents who were affected by the incident were contacted on May 11-12, 2020.
“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.”
CUMH said it was not aware of the decision to send the organs for incineration “prior to it occurring”.
"They shocked me to say the organs that they retained have been incinerated and we won't be able to get them back," Leona Bermingham, who lost her son Lee in September 2019, told RTÉ Investigates.
"My son's brain went into a bin as if it was a piece of rubbish. Why would you put my beautiful son's healthy brain into a bin?” Ms Bermigham said.
CUMH have confirmed a review into the events that led to the incineration of the organs was commissioned in May 2020 but said there were “significant delays”, most notably in getting “the appropriate external expertise that a review of this nature requires”. It said the review will likely be completed by early November.
The review’s findings and recommendations will be shared with the families affected and then with the wider HSE.
The Department of Health said it will now ensure all other hospitals are in compliance with HSE standards for post-mortem exams. The hospital group said that all perinatal organs retained since April 2, 2020, have been buried and there is “no possibility that this matter has affected other families beyond those already identified”.
Independent.ie have contacted the Department of Health for further comment.
RTÉ Investigates airs ‘Losing Lee’ tonight on Prime Time at 9.35pm on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player