Patient's terrible death reveals sickness of medical system

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am


The chances are that Zhu Huiming thought his luck could not get much worse when a dump truck ran into his electric bicycle on a Shanghai street just over a week ago.

Little could the 49-year-old have imagined the fatal misfortune that would befall him in the hospital, even after surgeons had stemmed the blood loss from his severely injured legs and stabilised his condition.

When a fire broke out in the room next to the operating theatre, all six medical staff left, abandoning their anaesthetised patient on the table. Apparently Zhu was hooked up to a ventilator that meant he could not be easily moved. He died there, alone and unconscious in a smoke-filled room where his life was supposed to be saved.

Shanghai No 3 People's Hospital was quick to play down initial media reports of the surgical team turning tail to save their own skins at the first sign of trouble. They had attempted to fight the fire and phoned for help, a spokeswoman said.

Yet even if the surgeons did not just flee, it is hard to overlook the simple fact: they left a patient in their care to take his chances against a fire when he was in no fit state to save himself. The poor soul was left to die in his drug-induced slumber.

This sad incident says much about the state of medical care on the mainland, attitudes towards fire safety and preparedness for emergencies, and the bureaucratic response to preventable tragedies. Shanghai may legitimately claim to be the mainland's most glamorous city, but the truth is that glitz does not stretch very far.

The hospital is affiliated to the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, but could hardly be described in the same terms. It sits in Baoshan district, right out on the grimy, industrial, far northeastern limits of Shanghai's vast urban sprawl.

The little cluster of faded pink concrete buildings looks tired even without noticing the fire damage scarring the upper floor of the surgical annex. Inside, dour-looking patients shuffle along dank, dimly lit corridors in moth-eaten, hospital-issue pyjamas.

Tellingly, the hospital's initial public statement in response to the fire said next to nothing about the circumstances of Zhu's death, but did mention that 'reparations' would be made to the family. The junior spokeswoman talked with some compassion about offering support to the victim's 'understandably shocked' relatives, but her boss cut a considerably less humane image when speaking to local television. He bluntly stated the hospital had begun negotiations over financial compensation.

The assumption that a wad of cash can make up for pointless loss of life seems endemic among mainland officialdom. Relatives of people who died in July's high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou complained of a similar mindset from officials whom they felt seemed more interested in taking about a monetary settlement than finding out the cause of the accident.

Zhu's family seems to have reacted to the news of his bizarre death with relative calm. Certainly more calmly than the relatives of another person who died on an operating table last month, this time in Nanchang , Jiangxi province. Around 12 hours before Zhu's untimely demise, close to a hundred people marched on the First Hospital of Nanchang, convinced their own relative's death was down to medical incompetence. Many were armed with steel bars and spears.

This angry response had clearly been anticipated by someone with power and influence: an even larger posse was waiting for the crowd, also armed with blunt weapons and more willing to use them. Videos posted online show the relatives being chased around the hospital's central plaza by hired thugs - a number wearing what looked to be police-issue helmets and flak jackets - or getting surrounded and beaten and kicked to the ground.

The public response to the Shanghai incident has been twofold: a mixture of fury at perceived incompetence, and the passive resignation that, in this country, these things just happen. The first group wail in anguish about low standards of professionalism and the apparent failure to value human life by the very people charged with saving it.

What is perhaps more disturbing is the opposite reaction: a shrug of jaded shoulders. The failure to be shocked by the almost inconceivable speaks volumes.