'We are in a dark place': Five families say they learned of CUMH babies' organ incineration through RTÉ report

'We are in a dark place': Five families say they learned of CUMH babies' organ incineration through RTÉ report

In total, 18 babies who passed away at Cork University Maternity Hospital had their organs and tissue sent to Belgium for incineration without the parents consent or knowledge. Picture: Larry Cummins

Warning: distressing content below

A number of families are disputing claims by Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) that they were informed last year that their babies' organs had been sent abroad for incineration.

Five families have come forward to say they first learned what had happened to their babies' organs from an RTÉ Investigates report last month.

After the report revealed organs from 18 babies were sent with clinical waste for incineration in Belgium on two occasions in 2020, CUMH, Cork University Hospital and the HSE issued a statement which said each of the affected families had been informed.

The joint statement said the 18 families were contacted on the phone and told their children's organs had been incinerated last year.

It claimed the families were offered an apology and support services and they were sent a follow-up apology letter via registered post.

Katie Quilligan is one of those who has contradicted these claims.

The 29-year-old's baby boy James died one day after being born at 24 weeks at CUMH in January 2020.

When approached about a post-mortem of James' brain, she agreed on the basis that any organs retained would be buried by the hospital in a CUMH grave plot known as the Garden of Angels.

Ms Quilligan said she and her family believed "in our heads and in our hearts" that this was what had happened.

It was only when she saw social media posts about the RTÉ Investigates report last month that she learned James' brain had been incinerated in Belgium.

"Even after all these months, it is now that we are finding out the truth – it is nerve-racking, upsetting, horrendous what they have done to our children," Ms Quilligan said.

"All they had to do was pick up the phone and say ‘what do you want to do with this?’ and I would have got my mother to go straight up, and I would have personally buried it in my family plot in Ballincollig.

We didn’t have a choice, we didn’t get a say – they just took our baby’s organ and sent it away without us knowing."

The day before the report aired, Ms Quilligan received a call from a CUMH staff member who she says told her a story would be coming out about 18 babies who had died at the hospital.

When she questioned what the story was about, the staff member told her they couldn't say as they didn't know the details themselves.

Another couple who are currently living in Australia have reached out about their experience spoke to RTÉ on condition of anonymity.

Their baby girl was stillborn at 25 weeks in CUMH in November 2019.

The couple, who are originally from Cork, said they were contacted by phone in May 2020 but it was not explained to them that their daughter's organ had been sent to Belgium for incineration.

They did not receive a follow-up apology letter but said they got a similar phone call to Ms Quilligan on the morning the report was due to air.

We now have to once again re-live the pain and grief of losing a child, only this time it is worse, and we are in a dark place, thinking of her body in Dunmanway and her organs or any part of our baby girl being in a rubbish tip after being incinerated in Belgium as clinical waste."

The situation has been made even more difficult for the couple as they are in lockdown in Australia and have no family or support network around them as they deal with the distressing news.

A third couple have said they remain in the dark about what exactly happened to organs belonging to their baby.

Daniel and Aleksandra Sznycer's son Oliver died in CUMH at 22 weeks in September 2019.

In the 17 months since the incident was brought to the attention of hospital management, Mr Sznycer said they are still unclear what organs belonging to Oliver were sent abroad for incineration.

"We don’t know exactly what organs were kept and we don’t know exactly what organs were buried in the cemetery in Cork.

"We don’t know anything – completely nothing – and I think we should get the information about this now."

The South/South West Hospital Group, Cork University Hospital and CUMH stated the calls made to the affected families were made by experienced clinical bereavement specialists who "categorically confirm that all families were informed incineration of the organs had occurred, and that this was not what the service had given them to expect would happen, which was for the organs to have been buried".

The statement issued to RTÉ conceded that the families were not told where the incinerations took place during the phone call.

They also reiterated their apology to the 18 families saying they are "truly sorry for the additional distress this has caused".

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