Cork couple demand to know who approved export of baby organs for incineration

The HSE has now ordered a full nationwide review of post mortem examination services with a specific focus on consent, storage and disposal
Cork couple demand to know who approved export of baby organs for incineration

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

Warning: distressing content below 

A grieving couple has demanded to know who approved the export of baby organs and tissues from Cork University Maternity Hospital for incineration with medical waste.

Leona Bermingham and her partner Glenn Callanan spoke out after it emerged they were among 18 families who were contacted by CUMH last summer to be told the organs or tissues of their dead babies had been sent overseas for incineration, without their consent.

First-time parent Leona and Glen lost baby Lee just hours after he and his twin brother, Lewis, were born at CUMH in September 2019.

They donated his organs for medical science in the hope it might “save another baby in the future”.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they would be incinerated in another country,” Leona said.

In the Dáil, Taoiseach Micheál Martin branded what had happened as “cruel and unacceptable" and said Health Minister Stephen Donnelly was seeking assurances from other maternity hospitals that such practices did not occur there.

The Irish Examiner has learnt that while all hospital groups have confirmed in writing to the HSE that they are fully compliant with its standards and recommended practices for post mortem examination services, it has now ordered a full nationwide review of these services, with a specific focus on consent, storage and disposal.

And while University Hospital Limerick says it is fully compliant with the standards in relation to adult post mortem services, its neonatal post mortems have been undertaken by external service providers.

“The hospital can confirm compliance in this area since 2019 and is currently contacting the pathologists involved in earlier post mortems to get assurance on compliance prior to 2019,” the HSE said.

Leona said: “I feel very let down by the hospital. I feel they could have done things a lot better. Who signed off to incinerate a baby’s brain without considering the devastating effect on families? It felt like we were just a burden on the hospital. I beat myself up for weeks and months afterwards that I didn’t ask enough questions.

It took a while to sink in. You know what the word incineration means, but it takes on a new meaning when you’re talking about your baby’s organs.” 

Hospital sources said the incident happened in the mortuary of the co-located Cork University Hospital (CUH) without the knowledge of the perinatal pathology team or anyone at CUMH.

Serious error

The South-South West Hospital Group, CUH and CUMH acknowledged that a serious error was made.

A spokesman said the incident, detailed in an RTÉ Investigates programme on Tuesday night, was confined to perinatal organs stored in the hospital mortuary between May 2019 and March 2020, and the incineration occurred on March 25 and April 2, 2020, only, as efforts were under way to increase CUH's mortuary capacity ahead of expected mass fatalities due to the pandemic.

The spokesman said Covid delayed the progress of an external expert review of the incident, but it got under way in late April and is expected to be complete by early November.

But a woman whose miscarried baby’s remains were dumped with clinical waste after she underwent a procedure at CUMH in 2018, said it was clear that three years on, there are still major gaps in the hospital’s policies and procedures.

Dr Laura Cahillane, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Limerick, said the hospital needed to treat bereaved parents with more respect.

“Individually, some staff were great,” Dr Cahillane said. 

But I found that as an institution, the hospital treated this as just another procedure. It was just another day for them in the hospital but they have to realise that for us, and others like us, our world had fallen apart.” 

Dr Cahillane suffered a miscarriage in 2018 and underwent a D&C procedure a week after a 13-week scan failed to detect a foetal heartbeat.

'The products of conception'

She was offered a choice of home burial, a hospital burial or cremation for “the products of conception”.

Dr Cahillane and her husband, Edward, chose home burial and signed the relevant forms but heard nothing for a few weeks afterwards.

When they finally contacted CUMH, they were told their baby’s remains had not been separated from “the waste”.

Dr Cahillane said it was very traumatic to be told their baby’s remains had basically been dumped.

“I understand now the difficulties around separating remains in these circumstances. But we hadn’t been told that this could happen. It just seems that the hospital, as an institution, doesn't realise the impact this has on families.”

Pregnancy loss support campaigner Claire Cullen Delsol said the revelations have caused immense pain.

“Heaping this trauma on top of infant bereavement and baby loss is absolutely unacceptable and cruel,” she said. “It’s clear that the guidelines just aren’t strong enough."

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

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