‘RTÉ Investigates’ reveals scandal of baby organ retention

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*The following report may be distressing for some readers*

RTÉ Investigates has delved deep into the scandal that rocked Ireland’s healthcare system two decades ago. 

Parents that tragically lost their children and then found that their organs had been retained spoke to RTÉ about coming to terms with their grief as well as dealing with not knowing what happened to their babies’ organs. 

Michaela Willis was commissioned by the Irish Government to investigate retained organs in Ireland and found varying standards of practice across hospitals nationwide. The one hospital that stood out to have poor practices was The Rotunda Maternity Hospital in Dublin. 

A second investigation with the HSE found the hospital had significantly different practices compared to other maternity units, including the high volume of organs retained and the lengthy amounts of time that they’d been held. Most bereaved families were unaware of what was happening. 

The majority of issues were highlighted in 2009 and were linked to postmortems conducted by ‘Consultant A’, who later identified himself as Dr John Gillan. He told colleagues that the issues were “deeply regrettable” but said the prolonged retention of organs allowed for thorough examinations into the causes of death. This report also states that Dr Gillan’s work was “ceased with immediate effect”.

Over a decade on from this, there was a public outcry at the discovery that multiple baby organs were sent abroad for incineration without the knowledge or consent of their parents. After further investigations, Ireland’s postmortem system was found to be unsatisfactory and at serious and substantial risk of failure. 

Evidence of widespread organ retention for prolonged periods of time was later found at numerous hospitals, with the majority of issues having been found to be performed by one pathologist, also identified as ‘Consultant A’. According to the report, this doctor is a retired pathologist, working on an ad hoc basis for the HSE which is overly reliant on his services.

RTÉ Investigates has now revealed that ‘Consultant A’ that was found to be linked with the majority of organ retainment issues is Dr John Gillan, the same pathologist working in The Rotunda Hospital when Michaela Willis shared her concerns about its practices there in the mid 2000’s.

One couple, Chelsea Brereton and Jamie Dunne, from Sallins Co.Kildare tragically lost their first child, with Chelsea delivering the stillborn in April 2020. They had a postmortem carried out to see why their baby had passed away but did not agree to organ retention. 

After the postmortem, the pair held a funeral and chased up the postmortem results for months. They did not get the report until November 2021. Then in December, Chelsea got a call form Portlaoise Hospital saying her son's organs were ready to be collected. Chelsea and Jamie, found out their son's brain, left lung and intestines had been retained without their knowledge. 

They went through the heartache of collecting their son's organs and held a second funeral for Mason. The postmortem had been carried out by Dr John Gillan, who had been rehired by the HSE after his retirement.  

You can watch RTÉ Investigates: Missing Pieces tonight on RTÉ One at 9.35pm.

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