Regions Hospital officials repeatedly apologized Wednesday after learning that a stillborn baby boy from its morgue was found this week in dirty laundry shipped to a Red Wing cleaning service.
The remains of the boy were discovered Tuesday by Crothall Laundry Services workers in the company’s Red Wing facility, 45 miles south of where his body had been kept in the Twin Cities after he was stillborn late in the second trimester on April 4. According to Red Wing police, there was no indication of foul play.
The St. Paul Police Department is leading an investigation into the incident with the help of Red Wing police and the Ramsey County medical examiner’s office.
The hospital apologized for the mistake Wednesday in a news release and subsequent news conference.
“We are really sorry and saddened that this event happened,” said Chris Boese, Regions’ chief nursing officer, who admitted that she “didn’t get much sleep” after hearing the news.
The hospital, in a statement issued before the news conference, said the case was “an unfortunate event involving the handling of remains” that had been wrapped in linen in the morgue and mistaken for laundry that was sent for cleaning.
The hospital had not realized the remains were missing until the laundry service contacted Regions personnel Tuesday morning, Boese said. The hospital said the remains were immediately collected from Red Wing and secured “according to proper procedures.”
‘Working to identify gap’
In the release, Boese said, “We are working to identify the gap in our system and to make sure this does not happen again.” Later, however, she didn’t offer details about the hospital’s procedures or specifically where the shortcomings occurred other than to say that Regions has a clear policy.
Regions reached the infant’s family Wednesday to apologize and offer support. Boese declined to identify the boy or his family, citing privacy laws.
Steve Carpenter, a president at Crothall Healthcare, the laundry’s corporate parent based in Pennsylvania, said in a statement, “Our hearts go out to all those who were affected by this tragic situation.”
The laundry service workers who made the discovery while the linens were being sorted will be offered support and counseling.
According to Red Wing police, workers for the laundry found the body after it tumbled out of a bedsheet. The baby had a tag on his ankle and was wearing a diaper, police added.
Police were called to the laundry just before 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, but the body had already been picked up by personnel from the hospital and returned to St. Paul, Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman said. That load of linen had been delivered within the previous 48 hours to the laundry, Pohlman said. Officers were shown a photo of the body, and they interviewed witnesses at the laundry service.
The medical examiner was scheduled Wednesday to examine the remains of the baby, which was born at 22 weeks. At that gestation period, the average fetus would be about 7½ inches long and weigh a little more than 12 ounces, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Minnesota law requires hospitals to file a report on stillborn deaths with state regulators within five days. The state Department of Health said Wednesday that Regions had not filed such a report, even though the death occurred April 4.
Similar cases elsewhere
Boese said she could not recall an incident like this ever occurring at Regions, which averages about 2,500 births a year. About 20 to 25 result in stillbirth, she added.
Similar incidents have happened around the country. In 2008, a boy who was stillborn during the second trimester was inadvertently sent from Huguley Memorial Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, along with dirty laundry to the cleaners. It took hospital staff members 19 hours to find the body, which was unpreserved and had been crushed and disfigured.
“I felt disgusted because it’s a baby, it’s not a piece of trash,” the mother, Kourtney McGee, said Wednesday. “Six years later, I’m still grieving over Jacob.” McGee sued the hospital and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
In 2001, a stillborn girl at 20 weeks’ gestation was mistakenly treated as medical waste at Central Vermont Medical Center, leading to the parents reaching an out-of-court settlement for damages. After the stillbirth, paperwork was lost indicating the couple wanted the fetus for burial and the remains were mistakenly discarded.
It’s difficult to say how often these cases occur in Minnesota, given that the state Health Department’s adverse-incident reporting data don’t appear to apply to this situation.
Sherokee Ilse, a Maple Plain consultant, author and international speaker on coping with stillbirths, miscarriages and infant death, said parents in Minnesota have the right to claim the remains from stillbirths. If the death occurs at 20 weeks or less, she said, the hospital can arrange to bury or cremate the remains. After 20 weeks, the family must make the arrangements. The hospital would hold the body in its morgue until that occurred, she said.
“Accidents happen,” Ilse said. “Things go wrong. And they are, I think, to be used as a challenge and opportunity to create better standards of care.”
Ilse said that when she trains hospital staff members, she urges keeping the stillborn in the room with the parents if they are willing. Most are, she said.
“My experience tells me that the family will be deeply, deeply hurt by this,” Ilse said.
She said she’s served as a mediator between families and hospitals in a couple of similar cases.
“Most families don’t just want an apology,” Ilse said. “They want to know what will be done differently so this doesn’t ever happen again.”