Doctors warn of indignity of bodies decomposing in mortuary corridor

Doctors at a second hospital had to threaten a form of industrial action in protest at poor conditions in its mortuary before securing a promise of funding for a major upgrade, it emerged yesterday.

The warning, which had to be issued by pathologists at Letterkenny Hospital in Donegal last year, echoes the same desperation of doctors at University Hospital Waterford who wrote a graphic letter to the HSE revealing the indignity of bodies decomposing in the corridors of the mortuary.

The pathologists in Donegal were forced to warn that some mortuary services would have to be transferred to Sligo.

This led to Saolta Hospital Group agreeing to ask the HSE to speed up the refurbishment of the hospital’s mortuary facilities.

The mortuary facilities in Waterford were described as so inferior they are causing “almost unspeakable distress to relatives”.

Professor Rob Landers, one of a number of pathologists who signed the letter to the HSE last October, said the mortuary was struggling to care for the deceased in cramped facilities, which left them with a lack of storage and bodies lying on trolleys in the corridor “leaking body fluids” on to the floor.

A lack of proper temperature control also meant some bodies decomposed and forced closed-coffin funerals.

The doctors said the “trauma imposed on the bereaved is almost unspeakable”.

The cramped facilities “expose the public to the noises and odours of a working post mortem”.

Staff are working in an “unsafe environment” and exposed to infection and chemical risks.

This also extends to gardaí, State pathologists, undertakers and embalmers.

They warned it was only a matter of time before a high-profile case would result in widespread adverse and reputational damage.

The need for a new mortuary was agreed by the HSE in 2006, but it took the publication of last October’s letter in the ‘Waterford News and Star’ newspaper to secure action.

A spokeswoman for the South/South West Hospital Group and the National Acute Hospitals Division of the HSE said it was now a “priority” to replace Waterford’s mortuary.

It is included in the draft capital plan sent to the Department of Health for approval.

It expects progress to selecting a contractor and starting construction of a new mortuary in the final quarter of this year, with the €5m build taking 20 months.

In the meantime, it is “examining arrangements to address the issues raised”, although it did not specify what these are.

Health Minister Simon Harris said he spoke to hospital management yesterday.

“The minister has made it clear to the HSE that this project needs to be progressed as a matter of priority and funding will be provided,” said the Department of Health.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on health Stephen Donnelly said issues with the mortuary had been highlighted since 2004, but the HSE had failed to replace it.

“Patients, visitors and staff are at risk in these unsafe and unsanitary conditions,” he said.

The Irish Hospice Foundation said well-designed spaces for the appropriate and compassionate care of the deceased and their relatives were an essential part of modern hospital care.

“A mortuary is a sanctuary and must convey a sense of reverence and respect for life, death and bereavement. It is our goal that all hospital mortuaries will be upgraded over the coming year,” it said.

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