Cork couple reveal anguish after baby boy's organs incinerated without their knowledge

In total, 18 babies had their organs and tissue sent to Belgium for incineration without the parents consent or knowledge.
Cork couple reveal anguish after baby boy's organs incinerated without their knowledge

Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan twins were delivered at 33 weeks, on 18 September 2019, by emergency c-section. Baby Lee passed away hours later. Picture: RTÉ

Warning: distressing content below 

An investigation is underway at Cork University Maternity Hospital after it emerged the organs of 18 babies were incinerated abroad.

The incineration of organs and tissue from 18 babies were incinerated in Belgium across two days in late March and early April 2020 without the knowledge or consent of parents.

According to RTÉ, the incident came to light in May of last year when Cork couple Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan received a phonecall from the hospital regarding their late son, Lee.

The couple learned they were expecting twins in April 2019 but later learned there were complications with one of the babies.

The twins were delivered at 33 weeks, on 18 September 2019, by emergency c-section.

Baby Lee passed away hours later.

The bereaved parents were encouraged to agree to a post-mortem on their child.

Following the post-mortem, organs belonging to Lee had been retained. Leona and Glenn learned these had been incinerated when they received the call in May 2020.

It was six months before Cork University Maternity Hospital met with the couple.

At this meeting, they were told that it was Lee's brain that had been kept and later incinerated in Antwerp, Belgium.

An investigation is underway at Cork University Maternity Hospital after it emerged the organs of 18 babies were incinerated abroad. Picture: Larry Cummins
An investigation is underway at Cork University Maternity Hospital after it emerged the organs of 18 babies were incinerated abroad. Picture: Larry Cummins

Speaking to RTÉ Investigates, Leona said: "My son's brain went into a bin, as if it was a piece of rubbish, you put rubbish in a bin, why would you put my beautiful son's brain into a bin?"

After learning what had happened with their baby son, documents released to Leona and Glenn revealed Lee was not the only baby involved.

In total, 18 babies had their organs and tissue sent to Belgium for incineration without the parents consent or knowledge.

The incineration took place over two days in late March and early April of 2020.

According to the report, internal hospital correspondence shows mortuary staff knew in the early months of 2020 that its burial plot at St Mary's Cemetery in Curraghkippane was full.

Although they were unable to secure appropriate burial space for the internment of organs, it was decided that cremation was not an option.

As a result, a number of baby organs lay in storage in the hospital morgue following post-mortem. Some of which were stored there for several months.

When Covid-19 arrived in Ireland, there was a need to free up space in the mortuary and so the decision was made to send the organs to be incinerated.

Rachael Liston, solicitor for Leona and Glenn, said the actions of the hospital had traumatised the couple.

"It is like a double trauma for the family, they have lost a baby in very sad circumstances and then to learn subsequently that their baby’s brain has been incinerated is so traumatic.

There’s a big difference between burying or cremating an organ and incinerating it with clinical waste which could include the likes of dressings or needles."

An incident report on the matter was sent to the Department of Health in May 2020.

RTÉ report that management did not rate the incident as serious but were concerned about the negative publicity that would arise should the situation become public knowledge.

However, senior medical staff at the Cork hospital disputed the comments and wrote to the HSE stating there was a significant risk of parental distress.

In a statement, the South/South West Hospital Group said it refuted any suggestion it was more concerned with adverse publicity.

The Group confirmed an investigation into the matter has been commissioned but is in the early stages.

The internal review was commissioned in April of this year and is due to report its findings in October or November.

The hospital group says all baby organs retained since the dates in question have been buried so there is no possibility other families are affected.

'You incinerate rubbish. You don't incinerate someone's body parts'

Unfortunately, the 18 families involved in this particular incident are not the first to go through the turmoil that comes with a loved ones body parts being disposed of without consent.

Cork woman Cally Walsh said she felt physically sick on hearing the news this morning.

"Here we are, all these years later, these parents are going to go through the horror that we went through."

Over 50 years ago, Cally and her husband lost their son Alan to a very rare disorder.

When they were asked to give consent for a post-mortem to be carried out, they agreed as they wanted answers and to find out more about the disorder that took their son's life. Something they spent years fighting for.

Years later on the evening of 23 December, while sorting through the Christmas cards they found a letter among the post.

"In amongst the Christmas cards was a letter to say 'we are sorry to inform you but your son's organs were retained'. We were in absolute shock," Cally told The Opinion Line with PJ Coogan on 96FM.

"One thing I will always remember saying to them is: Will Alan come back to us the same way he goes into you for the post-mortem?

"And we were assured that he would."

Following the letter, they were asked to attend a meeting at Cork University Maternity Hospital.

As they sat in a boardroom with men in suits, Cally says they were told quite bluntly that Alan's brain had been retained and subsequently incinerated.

The only thing my husband said to them on the day was: You incinerate rubbish. You don't incinerate someone's body parts."

Cally said they were relatively lucky compared to other families who learned years later that their loved ones' organs were still being stored in labs.

"Our story was horrific," she said, "but some of the stories were like something out of a horror film."

To this day, Cally wonders if they were told the whole story.

On hearing the story this morning, she said she was taken right back to that night on December 23 when they received the letter that changed their lives.

"It still goes through my mind. You're not even offered counselling or anything. How dare they do that to parents?

"It's so hard when you lose a child because you never expect to bury your child before you and then to try and get on with life as best you can and then out of the blue to be told this horror story.

"It should not happen."

Cally said her heart goes out to the families trying to come to terms with the news of what happened to their child's body parts as it is like hearing your child has died all over again.

If you are struggling with the loss of a child, please reach out and speak to someone:

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