The night after Esmeralda Hernandez delivered her stillborn, premature baby in April 2013, she kept the tiny boy close by in her hospital room overnight. With family members by her side, she mourned the loss of the boy she’d named José.
The staff of Regions Hospital, in St. Paul, Minn., offered to arrange for the cremation of the baby’s remains in a “respectful and dignified manner,” according to a lawyer for the family. The Hernandez family agreed.
But about two weeks later, the grieving family heard of a report on the news: The body of an infant, born at Regions Hospital, had been found amid dirty linens in a laundry facility in the town of Red Wing, 45 miles south of the hospital. The baby, still wearing a diaper and hospital identification bracelets, flew out of the dirty laundry and landed on a metal grate in front of the facility’s employees.
According to court documents, when the family heard the news report, they wondered: Could it be José?
They called the hospital, and soon after learned it was their child. Wrapped in linen, the body had been placed on a shelf in the morgue, Regions Hospital representatives told reporters a day later. A hospital employee, mistaking the remains as dirty linens, discarded them in the laundry.
Now, in a lawsuit filed this month, the Hernandez family is accusing the hospital of interfering with José’s body, demonstrating a “disregard” and “indifference” for the family’s rights. They allege that Regions knew the infant found at the laundry facility was José but decided not to tell the family until they called and inquired.
“Laundry workers gawked at Baby José, took photos of him, and sent pictures of him into cyberspace,” the lawsuit alleges.
Ten of the Hernandez family members, many of whom now live in Texas, are demanding a jury trial and a reward for each in excess of $50,000 for the “mental pain and suffering” they have endured and will endure, according to the lawsuit.
“We want to say again that we are truly sorry for our mistake,” a Regions Hospital spokesperson said in a statement provided to the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Monday afternoon. “We immediately reached out to the family in 2013 to apologize and to try and help ease their loss. We have continued to work with their lawyer — always open to a reasonable resolution.”
Indeed, the day after the baby was found, Christine Boese, then the hospital’s chief nursing officer, said in a news conference that Regions was “deeply saddened and troubled that this happened” and working to identify the “gap in the system” to make sure the error does not happen again.
In the day or two that followed, Regions hospital learned that another baby’s remains were missing. A baby named “Chang,” delivered four days after José, was “most probably delivered to the same laundry service,” according to the lawsuit. Days later, the remains had not been located.
An internal review at the hospital found that “both sets of the remains were mistaken as empty linens and placed in the laundry at the same time by a hospital employee,” Boese told reporters in mid-April, according to Minnesota Public Radio. She called both incidents a “tragic human error.”
A death investigation by police later revealed to the family, and the public, the details of how baby José’s body was found.
Red Wing police first learned about the body after an anonymous woman called them, according to their report. The woman said her daughter, an employee of Crothall Laundry Services, told her there was a dead baby in the laundry that day.
“She said she was upset because her daughter had to see this dead baby and they wouldn’t let her leave work,” an officer wrote in a police report.
An employee of the facility named Nick Murphy had been tearing open bags of dirty hospital linens and pulling them out when he felt something hit him on the shoulder, he later told police.
“Dude, look down at the floor,” one of his co-workers told him, he later recounted to police, appearing “visibly upset” as he spoke, the police report stated.
The dead baby had landed on the floor of the facility’s “catwalk,” a large, narrow grate beside a conveyor belt where dirty linens were placed, according to the report.
The laundry facility’s staff called Regions Hospital, which sent representatives to retrieve the body. Neither Crothall Laundry Services nor Regions Hospital called the police to notify them. When contacted by police, Regions Hospital said the mother had consented to disposal of the body without a funeral.
The office manager told police that it was “not uncommon” for the laundry employees to “find medical waste in the linens from Regions which may consist of tissue, blood, and on occasion, an appendage,” a police report stated.
In the weeks that followed, the discovery of José’s body brought to light the issue of how hospitals across the state disposed of and stored the bodies of stillborn infants. Two of the state’s largest hospitals placed most bodies in plastic bags or containers with clear labels, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
Regions Hospital, however, did not use body bags. It wrapped stillborn remains in linens, stored on a shelf in the morgue, “an area that was accessible to some non-morgue employees,” according to the MPR report.
“I think what the problem was, is it was wrapped in linen, which can easily be mistaken as soiled linen,” Regions Hospital spokesperson Kristen Kaufmann told MPR. The hospital acknowledged that method could “easily” lead to devastating errors.
“I’m not sure why they were wrapped in linen. I’m honestly not,” Kaufmann told the radio station. “I’ve seen speculations out there, but I can’t attest to why it has been done that way.” The hospital subsequently decided to begin storing the bodies in bags, and made efforts to provide more security and supervision in the morgue.
Hospitals at the time were required to report stillborn deaths with state regulators within five days. But the state Department of Health told the Star Tribune that Regions had not filed such a report by April 17, even though the death had occurred on April 3.
Other similar instances have taken placed nationwide over the past several years. In Miami earlier this year, a couple claimed in court that a hospital threw out the remains of their stillborn baby girl. They had hoped to give her a funeral.
In Lorain, Ohio, last year, a hospital misplaced the remains of a stillborn baby after the body was believed to be sent with the laundry.
Pearlean Bohannon, the infant girl’s great grandmother, told Cleveland 19 television station that a funeral home was supposed to pick the baby up from the hospital, but the baby could not be found.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bohannon told Cleveland 19. “It’s unforgivable. It’s like no one cared! How can you just lose a baby?”
In Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008, a stillborn boy was accidentally sent to a laundry facility. The body was later found to be crushed and disfigured, the Star Tribune reported. The mother sued the hospital and settled out of court.
“I felt disgusted because it’s a baby, it’s not a piece of trash,” the mother told the Star Tribune in 2013. “Six years later, I’m still grieving over Jacob.”
More from Morning Mix: