In further anguish to the family of Jim Houlihan, they were given the belongings of two other deceased residents, writes Catherine Fegan
An HSE nursing home has launched an investigation after a grieving family was given the personal effects of two other deceased residents among items belonging to their father, who passed away from Covid-19.
In an email to the family who made the traumatic discovery, the acting director of nursing at Clonskeagh Community Nursing home in Dublin described the incident as a "serious error".
The shocking blunder only came to light when the family of Jim Houlihan, who passed away from coronavirus last month, went through several bags that had been given to them by nursing home staff after he died.
The family were told the bags contained items that had been removed from their father's room.
When they returned home and opened the bags, they discovered intimate belongings, including briefs, jewellery, books, dentures, several handbags and other belongings of a deceased female resident.
Other bags included private photos and clothing that belonged to a deceased male who resided at the care home.
The facility is in the process of contacting the relatives of the two deceased residents to offer a written apology and return the personal belongings.
In a statement to the Irish Independent, Clonskeagh Community Nursing home confirmed that 15 residents have died from Covid-19 since the beginning of March.
Meanwhile, the family of Mr Houlihan (77), who passed away on April 15, have described their anguish over the days that lead to his death.
"It's haunting for us to know that we were helpless, that all of this was going on up there. We couldn't advocate for him, we couldn't be his voice until it was too late," his daughter-in-law Monica told the Irish Independent.
Mr Houlihan's son Andrew and his wife Monica, his only next-of-kin in Ireland, received a call on April 7, informing him his father had been placed in isolation due to a positive case of Covid-19 in the home.
He was told that his father had shortness of breath and a temperature.
Mr Houlihan had underlying health conditions, including heart disease and kidney problems.
"They said we are treating him like he had Covid," said Monica. "I said would you not test him? And they said that the HSE directive at the time was that if one person tests positive in the setting, then anybody that shows any symptoms is also deemed to be Covid positive."
On Friday, April 10, when the family called for an update, they were told Mr Houlihan had become very ill.
It was during this call that Andrew and Monica were told that Mr Houlihan had agreed to a 'do not transfer order' on April 6.
This meant that if his condition deteriorated, he was not to be transferred to hospital for treatment.
"Not one person contacted us as his next of kin to let us know any of this was going on," said Andrew.
"My father had no 'do not resuscitate' (DNR) order in place because he wanted to live. He wanted every chance to live.
"Yet we were advised that he was not being transferred to hospital for further care because he had been deemed not suitable under the HSE directive and scaling system of suitability.
"We were advised that ambulances and hospitals had strict criteria in place stating that all nursing home patients, deemed not for transfer, were not to be transported to the hospital," he said.
On the same day, April 10, the family requested a call from the GP who was caring for Mr Houlihan.
The GP told them he was only permitted to transfer patients to hospital where it was believed the patient would benefit.
He added that Mr Houlihan's condition had worsened too much for any real benefit at that point.
Mr Houlihan died five days later. His death certificate cited Covid-19 as the cause of death, with his underlying conditions contributing, despite not having been tested for the virus.
"We wanted him to go to hospital," said Monica.
"When you lose someone you have to feel that you have done everything for them. Even if he had have gone to a hospital setting and there was nothing that could have been done, at least we would have felt that we tried, and he would have known we tried."
In the days that followed, the family organised a small funeral for Mr Houlihan. He was laid to rest alongside his late wife Patricia, who passed away 12 years ago.
Mr Houlihan, from Ringsend, was a devout Catholic and had specifically chosen Clonskeagh as his final home because it offered Mass four times weekly.
He was a member of the Dublin minor hurling team in his youth.
Last Friday, Monica and Andrew made the 220km journey from their home in Laois to collect Mr Houlihan's belongings and speak to management about the lead-up to his death.
"After Jim's death we found out that four other residents had died from Covid-19 before he did," said Monica.
"We only found that out after the facts. Jim's key worker ended up in ICU with Covid-19. He was in ICU and sending us pictures with Jim would have been taken during the incubation period. He was showering, cleaning and changing Jim.
" He was totally oblivious to all of this and he must have been petrified in the end.
"When we went to collect his stuff we also wanted to try and get answers to the many questions we had been sending in by email.
"We were stopped by security and a message was passed to the manager," said Monica.
Mr Houlihan's belongings were placed directly into his son's car by staff at the nursing home. Andrew only discovered what was inside when he reached home. He said: "After days of trying to find the courage to open the bags and organise my father's belongings, I soon realised that some bags were not my father's belongings.
"Instead they belonged to a female resident and another male resident, both of whom are now deceased."
An internal investigation into the privacy breach has now been launched.
"For us it has added further insult to injury," said Monica.
"I have underwear belonging to a deceased woman in my hallway.
"These are real people and the indignity of their belongings being passed out to whoever is just deplorable," she added.
"Jim had a love of life. He regularly joked telling us that he planned to live until he was 100 years old so he could claim his cheque from the President.
"He spent the last four months in his room, deciding against visiting the communal areas for fear of infection.
"The last time we saw him alive was March 1."
In a statement, the HSE said it does not comment on individual cases.
It added that it had "nothing further to add in respect of the comments" made by the family in relation to Mr Houlihan's death, "other than to offer its sincere condolences to the family of Mr Houlihan".
The statement added: "The HSE will continue to engage privately with the family to investigate and respond to all questions raised."