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Traumatic Mum's agony after learning deceased baby's brain was incinerated without consent

"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"

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Cork couple Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan

Cork couple Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan

Cork couple Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan

A woman who lost her baby son shortly after he was born at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) in September 2019 has told of her horror after being told how his brain was incinerated abroad in Antwerp in Belgium. 

In April of that year, Cork couple Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan were overjoyed to discover they were expecting twins.

However, at their 16 week scan, they were given some bad news that there were complications with one of the twins.

On September 18, Leona and Glenn’s twin boys, Lee and Lewis, were delivered at 33 weeks by emergency C-section at Cork University Maternity Hospital.

Hours later baby Lee sadly died and because of the circumstances of his death, Leona and Glenn were encouraged to agree to a post-mortem.

In mid-May 2020, Leona received an unexpected call from Cork University Maternity Hospital to say that the organs that they retained belonging to Lee had been incinerated and they wouldn't be able to get them back.

Six months after they received the phone call to tell them Lee’s organs had been incinerated, Cork University Maternity Hospital eventually arranged to meet with Leona and Glenn. They were horrified to be told it was baby Lee's brain that they kept and that the brain was incinerated in Antwerp.

"They shocked me to say the organs that they retained have been incinerated and we won't be able to get them back," Leona, one of 18 affected families, tells RTÉ Investigates in a special report to be broadcast tonight.

Leona tells the programme: "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."

An investigation is now under way at Cork University Maternity Hospital after multiple baby organs were incinerated abroad without the consent or knowledge of bereaved parents.

RTÉ Investigates has learned the incinerations occurred on two occasions last year when the organs of 18 babies were sent to Belgium along with clinical waste.

HSE standards state that, when organs are retained at post-mortem for further examination, hospitals should support the next of kin by facilitating their return or arranging their sensitive disposal by burial or cremation only.

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Despite this, all 18 families were contacted by Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) last May to inform them that the organs of their deceased babies – many of whom had died months earlier – had been incinerated across two days in late March and early April last year.

The family's solicitor, Rachael Liston, said it was 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,” she said.

“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.”

Internal hospital correspondence revealed in tonight's report, shows mortuary staff were aware in early 2020 that its burial plot at St Mary’s Cemetery in Curraghkippane was full and staff were “… unable to secure appropriate burial space for internment of organs…” elsewhere.

As they decided cremation was not an option, the result was that multiple baby organs which had been released by the pathology department following post-mortem lay in storage in the hospital’s morgue – in some cases for several months.

With the arrival of the coronavirus and the possibility of increased deaths in March 2020, space needed to be freed up in the mortuary at Cork University Hospital. As a result a decision was made to send the organs for incineration. In all, organs and tissue from 18 babies were incinerated in Belgium across two days in late March and early April 2020.

In mid-May 2020 hospital management sent an incident report to the Department of Health. RTE Investigates says it is understood management did not rate the incident as serious, however, they did express concerns about adverse publicity for the hospital if it came to public attention.

Senior medical staff at the hospital disputed those comments and wrote to the HSE stating there was a significant risk for parental distress.

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

With regard to post-mortem practices in hospitals nationally, the Dept of Health has told RTÉ Investigates “The HSE will now confirm… that they are in compliance with the HSE’s Standards… for Post-mortem Examinations 2012.”

The South/South West Hospital Group has confirmed to RTÉ it has commissioned an investigation into the events that led to the incineration of baby organs. Now, 17 months after the incident first came to the attention of hospital management, the review is only at an early stage.

The full RTÉ Investigates report is on Prime Time tonight, Tuesday at 9.35pm on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player.

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