The incinerations occurred on two occasions in late March and early April 2020 when the organs of deceased babies from Cork University Maternity Hospital were sent to Belgium along with clinical waste, RTÉ Investigates reports.
18 families were ultimately contacted by Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) regarding the shocking incident.
One of the couples was Leona Bermingham and Glenn Callanan of Co Cork, who welcomed twin boys Lewis and Lee via emergency C-section at CUMH on September 18, 2019. Having been born at 33 weeks, the baby boys were brought into neonatal care, but, tragically, Lee passed away very shortly after being born.
RTÉ reports: "Because of the circumstances of baby Lee’s death, Leona and Glenn were encouraged to agree to a post-mortem examination
“They were given an information booklet – it detailed what would happen if the pathologist needed to keep any organs for further examination and explained that their wishes regarding the ‘burial or cremation’ of any retained organs would be discussed with them.”
The following morning, baby Lee was taken for his post-mortem exam and a week later he was laid to rest.
The couple then “attempted to get on with life.” However, in May 2020, Bermingham received a call “out of the blue” from Cork University Maternity Hospital.
“The purpose of the call was to tell her that the organs retained at Lee’s post-mortem had been incinerated and that the couple would not be getting them back,” RTÉ reports.
Bermingham told RTÉ Investigates: “Our first question was, ‘what organs did you take from Lee?’ And they told us basically it was his brain that they kept and that the brain was incinerated abroad.
“They told us it was in Antwerp, in Belgium. Our world came crashing down around us.”
Bermingham added: "My son's brain went into a bin as if it was a piece of rubbish. Why would you put my beautiful son's healthy brain into a bin?"
An investigation is under way at Cork University Maternity Hospital after the organs of several babies were incinerated abroad, without the knowledge or consent of bereaved parents | https://t.co/hSRhnM2NH5 pic.twitter.com/AIBHyLSKak— RTÉ News (@rtenews) September 28, 2021
CUMH said in a statement to RTÉ Investigates it “was not aware of the decision to send the perinatal organs for incineration.”
The Irish hospital apologized for the “distressing” incident, noting that it “happened under very extenuating and unprecedented circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, RTÉ goes on to report that internal hospital correspondence reveals that “some of the affected organs had been released by the pathology department months before the COVID crisis hit Ireland.”
Echo Live, based in Co Cork, published a statement issued by the South/South West Hospital Group, which is responsible for CUMH, on Tuesday. The Hospital Group said it has apologized to the families affected and confirmed that an external review has been commissioned, though it has been delayed.
"The review will establish the factual circumstances leading up to the incident," the statement says, adding, "However, in order to provide some context, this action occurred when hospitals were preparing to significantly increase their mortuary capacity for mass fatalities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020 it was widely reported that healthcare expert epidemiologists were predicting there could be between 80,000 and 100,000 deaths in Ireland from COVID-19."
The statement, which stresses that all affected families have already been contacted, adds: "The South/ South West Hospital Group and CUH deeply regret that this distressing incident occurred and acknowledge that a serious error was made, and are truly sorry for the additional distress this has caused to grieving families."
Raising the matter in the Dáil on Tuesday, Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald said: "As the Taoiseach will know, what happened in Cork University Maternity Hospital is in breach of HSE guidelines that go back to 2012 arising from a previous scandal.
"We need answers. We need to know why this happened. As a matter of urgency, time needs to be made available for the Minister for Health to appear before the House to make a statement, take questions, and give answers to the Dáil, but, more importantly, to start to give answers and assurances to those families, in particular, and to the wider community."
The Taoiseach responded: “That this was done without the consent or knowledge of the bereaved parents is cruel and unacceptable. I would certainly be anxious to facilitate a debate in the House and for questions to be asked.
"I believe the Minister is seeking assurances from every other site across the country that this did not occur. "
"Losing Lee," an RTÉ Investigates report, airs on RTÉ's Prime Time at 9.35 pm on Tuesday, September 28.