Tuesday 20 August 2019

Eilish O'Regan: 'Doubting Leo's remarks a kick for medics who put reputation on line'


Row: Leo Varadkar on his visit to Waterford, where he became involved in the controversy over mortuary conditions at the hospital, flagged up by doctors including Prof Rob Landers. Photo: Mark Condren
Row: Leo Varadkar on his visit to Waterford, where he became involved in the controversy over mortuary conditions at the hospital, flagged up by doctors including Prof Rob Landers. Photo: Mark Condren
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

They are among the least high-profile of medical specialists, who spend most of their working days looking down microscopes in laboratories or in chilly back rooms where their patients are already dead.

Pathologists are medics not given to flamboyance.

So when four of these doctors highlighted their concern at leaking corpses in the corridor of the outdated University Hospital Waterford mortuary, it was a rare step into controversy.

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University Hospital Waterford. Photo: Tony Gavin
University Hospital Waterford. Photo: Tony Gavin

All the more surprising then has been the response of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over a number of days when he apparently questioned their claims. It was only due to good digging by a Waterford journalist that a letter written by the doctors last October to hospital group chief executive Gerry O'Dwyer was made public.

They warned: "Bodies decompose in the corridors, leading to closed-coffin funerals with relatives unable to view the remains as a result of gaseous decomposition. The trauma imposed on the bereaved is almost unspeakable.

"The cramped facilities expose the public to the noise and odours of a working post-mortem room when visiting the public areas of the mortuary for identification or viewing purposes and funerals."

Prof Rob Landers. Photo: Tom Burke
Prof Rob Landers. Photo: Tom Burke

The shocking details were met with a promise from the hospital that a mobile refrigerated unit will be on site in up to two weeks, a minor extension will be built in 10 weeks and a new mortuary is planned for two years. But instead of letting it lie, it issued another statement a few days later saying there were no formal complaints and no "evidence" to substantiate the claims.

When questioned by reporters earlier this week Mr Varadkar, who was canvassing in Waterford, said: "The coroner was unaware of it, the funeral homes that have been asked are unaware of it, there were no incident reports from any staff and also there were no complaints from any families, so it's definitely a strange story.

"I don't know if the claims were true and certainly those who made them haven't put forward any evidence to support them."

He was still sceptical on Thursday.

However, yesterday he tried to play down his earlier comments saying he regretted their "tone". He said: "The only thing I said was there were different accounts, and I did not want to be calling any staff member dishonest or questioning the veracity of what they said."

Mr Varadkar has only helped to stoke the row and get into unnecessary conflict with four low-key doctors who might be surprised to be called "whistleblowers".

As one of their number, Professor Rob Landers, remarked, they had put their reputations on the line.

Mr Varadkar might have asked himself, if there was no issue with inadequate temperature control in the mortuary, what was the need for a mobile refrigeration unit being now brought on to the site?

There was always the option for him to actually visit the mortuary on a confidential basis, but this did not happen.

The Taoiseach would have seen the undignified conditions at first hand.

He would have seen there is space for only six bodies in the refrigeration area, according to the 'Waterford News and Star'.

It pointed out the Waterford hospital services 520,000 people.

But the Cork hospital mortuary, catering for 542,000 people has storage for 25 bodies, along with additional storage for six if the need arises.

It revealed that the "rooms are inadequately separated, meaning noise and odours are well within reach of the public".

"There are no separate staff toilets, no viewing areas for gardaí or students, no 'high risk' area for infectious cases. The post-mortem suite opens directly onto a corridor instead of a transitional area."

There is also a lack of counselling and meeting rooms, as well as no multi-faith areas for Muslims who need washing facilities.

Although a significant number of hospital mortuaries have been refurbished or replaced in recent years, the standards are still variable.

Due to respect for the dead, bereaved relatives have in the past tolerated some grim surroundings in hospital mortuaries before the removal of a body to a funeral parlour.

But there is a growing recognition now that there must be an inviting space provided for bereaved families to congregate in the hospital mortuary following the death of their loved one.

The Irish Hospice Foundation has pointed to the need for an area to create a respectful, non-clinical environment, with a calm and soothing atmosphere for relatives.

The staff in Waterford and other mortuaries have probably tried to spare the bereaved families as much as they can from any more pain at a time of such grief and loss.

It is also the case that relatives would be slow to complain about physical surroundings if they are supported by caring health staff.

The arrival of the refrigerated mobile unit should provide some temporary relief.

As for the Taoiseach and HSE managers, they might be well-advised to stop minimising the inadequacies revealed by the doctors who are expected before the Oireachtas health committee soon.

Irish Independent

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