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Hong Kong courts

Hong Kong doctor and technician guilty of manslaughter over death at beauty centre from unproven cancer treatment

Patient Chan Yuen-lam died after undergoing experimental therapy clinic deemed had anti-ageing benefits, but which left her with bacterial levels ‘only seen in terminally ill Aids patients’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 2:18pm

A doctor and a technician have been found guilty of manslaughter after using an experimental cancer therapy that killed a woman, in the worst beauty treatment blunder Hong Kong has ever seen.

The convictions were the first of their kind in the city’s vast, largely unregulated industry of beauty treatment clinics. Doctors are rarely found guilty of manslaughter in Hong Kong. In 2003, a gynaecologist was jailed for two years after he killed a woman with a painkiller overdose while carrying out an illegal abortion.

The dead woman’s husband, Yeung Kam-hoi, burst into tears upon hearing the verdicts on Tuesday.

“At least there was justice,” he said. But he added he would never forgive the trio who stood trial for the blunders.

Clinic owner Dr Stephen Chow Heung-wing, 63, technician Chan Kwun-chung, 32, and Dr Mak Wan-ling, 35, had each denied one count of manslaughter, an offence punishable by life imprisonment.

A jury of six men and three women on Tuesday sided with prosecutors in finding Chow and Chan should be criminally punished over the death of Chan Yuen-lam, 46, on October 10, 2012. The verdict on Chow was unanimous, while the jurors decided on Chan’s fate by a ratio of 7:2.

But the jury was unable to reach a verdict on Mak. She did not respond to questions after the hearing.

A separate complaint against her was lodged with the city’s doctors’ watchdog in 2015.

Bacteria at levels ‘only seen in terminal Aids patients’: doctors await verdict over fatal beauty blunder

The highly anticipated verdicts in the marathon trial, presided over by Madam Justice Judianna Barnes Wai-ling, were reached after 98 days of evidence and 15 hours of jury deliberations.

Mitigation hearings for Chow and Mak were scheduled for Wednesday. The judge also directed prosecutors to take instructions on Mak’s case.

The High Court heard Chan died of multi-organ failure caused by mycobacterium abscessus septicaemia, a week after receiving an infusion of a blood product prepared by Chan Kwun-chung and administered by Mak, who were both employed by Chow. Three other women, including Chow’s sister, also fell seriously ill after undergoing the treatment.

How search for secret ‘natural killer’ cells embroiled Hong Kong beauty chain in manslaughter case

Subsequent investigations revealed the blood products were never tested for bacteria.

Doctors said the blood poisoning the dead patient experienced had been “most catastrophic” and likened her bacterial levels to that of “terminally ill Aids patients”.

The blunders shocked the city and shed light on the booming but often unregulated industry of beauty centres that have offered everything from stem cell injections to body contouring surgery.

Prosecutors argued all three defendants owed a duty of care to the deceased, but breached that duty with such disregard for life and safety that the case shifted from what would typically be a civil matter to a criminal prosecution.

But Chow and Chan questioned whether they owed a duty of care in the first place. Mak, who accepted her duty as a doctor to a patient, argued she was unaware that bacteria tests had not been carried out on the blood products but said she had checked their packaging was undamaged and sterilised the openings on the skin where the injections were made.

Hong Kong beauty customer recalls trauma of lost legs and fingers from blood therapy treatment gone wrong

Technician Chan watched the jurors file into a small but packed courtroom at five minutes to 5pm on Tuesday to deliver their verdicts.

Beside him, Chow kept his head held low as the jury foreman announced a unanimous verdict: “Guilty”.

The two men appeared calm despite the news. Mak, on the other hand, immediately cried, wiping her red face with a tissue. But after the hearing concluded she flashed a smile towards her leading counsel, Peter Duncan SC. Later she joined her family in prayer, her father crying.

The judge thanked the jury for their contribution towards the “exceptionally long trial” and excused them from service in the next 10 years.

The jury had indicated earlier in the day that they would be unable to return a majority verdict of at least seven in agreement on one of the defendants.

Wife shed tears but couldn’t speak, husband of deceased in blood therapy case tells court

While the court at that time did not hear which defendant that was, an indication came when the jury twice inquired about Mak. Three hours later, they asked again. The verdict was then out within an hour.

In 2012 three women fell ill after receiving cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cell therapy at the Hong Kong Mesotherapy Centre, owned by Chow’s DR Group, in Causeway Bay. The treatment, sold at HK$59,500 per injection, was meant to improve immunity by enhancing cells in the body that are capable of killing their mutated counterparts before they become cancerous.

Chan Yuen-lam died with “the most catastrophic” blood poisoning and bacterial levels comparable to those of “terminally ill Aids patients”, according to doctors. Wong Ching-bor, then 60, had her legs and four fingers amputated to save her life, while Wong Fung-kwan, then 62, had to learn how to walk again.

Investigators also sent Chow’s sister, a lung cancer patient, to hospital after her second infusion gave her a fever and diarrhoea 10 times a day.

The source of the bacteria was never identified due to the lack of protocol and documentation at the laboratory which handled the blood products.

Chan’s husband and two other victims have since filed civil claims against the trio and the DR Group’s subsidiaries.

The husband said: “No one would ever forgive these people. They did all these things just because they wanted quick cash.”

Speaking through a lawyer, Wong questioned why Mak had escaped responsibility, but said the verdict had at least brought things to an end.

Lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen, who has been assisting the deceased’s family, said the verdict sent a message to those working in the medical and beauty industry that they must be more rigorous and responsible.

She called on the government to step up monitoring work on medical services offered on the pretext of beauty treatment as well as relevant equipment.