Original story at: New Zealand Herald
David Sadler For Congress 12th CD/Illinois

News for baby heart families imminent
New Zealand Herald
02.03.2002 11:45 am

Some parents and relatives may hear today or tomorrow if the hearts of their dead babies have been taken and stored without permission and used for medical research.

A hospital hotline has been overwhelmed with more than 1500 calls, many from distraught parents and relatives anxious to know if they buried their children without hearts after the organs were taken and stored without permission. Many of the hearts were used to teach young doctors or to advance medical knowledge about heart disease and defects.

Some of the hearts have been stored for up to 50 years after the children died throughout the country and their hearts were sent to Auckland's Green Lane Hospital.

The hospital set up the hotline for relatives to call, saying the issue was too sensitive to send letters to known relatives of the dead children because some hearts were taken from aborted foetuses and the mothers may not want other family members to know of the pregnancy.

If the heart could be linked with a caller, a decision then had to be made what to do with the organ. It could be offered back to the family for disposal with hospital help, or permission could be given for it to be kept, said hospital spokeswoman Brenda Saunders.

Almost all the hearts were taken from young babies who died, some soon after birth, some stillborn and some from aborted foetuses.

Ms Saunders said today callers could not be given immediate confirmation that the collection of more than 1300 hearts at the hospital contained an organ from their child.

She said it would take several hours to cross-check the information provided by callers with data held on the hearts.

Ms Saunders said for privacy reasons the hospital had to be sure they were giving information to the next of kin.

" They have then to check with the heart, check the records, and then check with the deceased person's case notes. "

She could not say if callers would be told what the heart had been used for at the hospital.

Ms Saunders said many callers supported the hospital and a few had said they did not want to know if the hearts of their dead babies were in the collection.

The hospital has increased telephone operators to 29 with five on administrative duties and 20 medical staff checking the medical data and preparing to return calls. A further 10 staff were on other associated duties, taking the team to 64. Other clinical records staff were also involved.

She said the hospital had not yet begun to count the cost.

" It will clearly be a lot of money. "

Ms Saunders said it was also undecided if callers linked with stored hearts would get a letter of apology from the hospital.

However, she said the hospital had already publicly apologised for any distress the collection of hearts had caused, even though the hearts were taken or kept without permission by people at other hospitals or by people who may longer work at the hospital. All but emergency heart surgery on young patients had been delayed as the hospital assembled a team of more than 70 people, including 20 specialist medical staff, whose task was to study the data and call people back with details of the hearts.

The practice of taking hearts without seeking specific informed consent stopped in 1990.

- NZPA