London

Exhumation after wrong bodies buried in hospital mix-up

A west London hospital released the bodies for burial of two men to the wrong families resulting in the exhumation of one them.

The incident at Hammersmith Hospital in December 2009 emerged after a BBC London investigation.

The bodies of the men who had identical surnames but different first names were released by mortuary workers to the wrong funeral directors.

The incident has led to changes in procedure at the hospital mortuary.

Hammersmith Hospital has apologised to the families involved and said it had implemented such measures as tougher cross-checking of corpses with similar names.

A spokeswoman from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which manages the hospital, said: "We apologise sincerely and unreservedly for the distress we have caused to the families and friends of the patients concerned. "

'Disgusting'

The family of 79-year-old Jamil Sheikh gathered at Old Mortlake Burial Ground in Richmond, south-west London, to pay their respects to the former railway worker, unaware they had buried the wrong man.

In a separate location, the family of another man opened the coffin only to discover the body of Mr Sheikh.

The body of the first man had to be exhumed and reburied.

Mr Sheikh's daughter, Sobia, from west London, said: "It is disgusting and shocking.

"How can you make a mistake like that? You can get given a wrong pair of shoes but not the wrong person to bury.

"It was terrible, my mother had to phone everyone again and tell them about the second funeral.

"Every time she was speaking to someone she'd break down crying. It was her husband of 50 years, losing him once, then losing him again."

The findings of an internal, confidential investigation into the incident revealed a catalogue of errors leading to the mix-up.

It found mortuary workers had released the bodies to the wrong families despite each having a name tag attached.

It said: "This investigation has identified there was poor service management practice, there were individual failures of staff not taking responsibility for correctly checking the identification of two deceased patients, compounded by the funeral directors' failure to check."

'Enormous distress'

It also found one member of staff had made more than 70 errors that were never raised with managers.

An external investigation at the mortuary prior to the mix-up, by the Clinical Pathology Accreditation, referred to a failure to fulfil the requirements of their standards "to such a degree that there is evidence of a system failure".

It revealed documents were out-of-date and there was a lack of training and a lack of written procedures.

Mortuaries in the UK have been tightly regulated since the organs scandal at Liverpool's Alder Hey Children's Hospital, where hundreds of dead babies had organs removed without the permission of relatives in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), which regulates mortuaries, was alerted to the incident.

HTA head of regulation Caroline Browne said: "It's absolutely terrible when, for example, the wrong body is released for burial.

"That is terrible for the family and causes an enormous amount of distress and also causes a lot of distress to the staff involved because no-one ever intends for something like that to happen.

"We take it very seriously indeed and it's absolutely incumbent on us, as the regulator, to make sure that as far as possible, things don't happen and things don't go wrong."

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust added: "Since this incident happened we have been working closely with the families affected to minimize their distress.

"We have carried out a thorough investigation and completed all the actions arising from this, including putting in place a range of new procedures and a revised policy for the identification of deceased patients."

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