Getting it dead wrong: woman found alive in morgue fridge
It's not the first time it's happened, and it'll happen again, say paramedics who insist they weren't negligent
Declared dead after a car accident, a Gauteng woman was discovered alive inside a mortuary fridge by forensic officers.
The woman, whose relative Lucia Dongua declined to speak to Times Select, was travelling along the P111 outside Carletonville during the early hours of Sunday last week when the driver lost control of the car, which rolled.
Two other occupants were killed.
The mis-declaration by Distress Assist ambulance service paramedics is being investigated by the Gauteng health department.
The accident was also attended by ER24 paramedics who declared the other two patients dead.The Health Professionals Council of South Africa, with which paramedics must register, has protocols on how a death can be declared. These include, among others, that death can only be declared:
• By a paramedic who has an intermediary life support qualification or above;
• When there is evidence of decapitation, mortal disfigurement, rigor mortis, putrefaction, or post mortem lividity;
• There is no evidence of cardiac electrical activity; and
• When there are no palpable pulses, audible heart sounds or spontaneous breathing for the past five minutes.
‘You never expect this’
A Carletonville mortuary source said his colleagues had loaded the bodies into the fridges and were filling in forms, when one returned to check on them.
“When he pulled out the woman’s body, he saw that she was breathing.”
He said his colleague immediately rushed her to Carletonville Hospital.“She was then transferred to Leratong Hospital in Krugersdorp, where she is currently.”
The source said they could not understand how she had been declared dead.
“Paramedics are trained to determine death, not us. You never expect to open a fridge and find someone there alive. Can you image if we had begun the autopsy and killed her?”
Distress Alert operations manager Gerrit Bradnick confirmed that their paramedics had declared the woman dead.
‘Followed all protocols’
He said their paramedics received a call about the accident, and were told that an ambulance from a different service had collided with the vehicle which had rolled in an earlier accident and was stuck in the middle of the road
“The paramedics from the ambulance which was involved in the accident found the bodies outside the vehicle. They were ejected when the vehicle first rolled.”Bradnick, who also responded to the scene, said he, along with the other paramedics, started to do scene safety.
“The other paramedics had already done primary checks to see who was injured and who was not. They had already covered the bodies of the dead.”
He said that because of the chaos he called his ambulance crew to help.
Bradnick said that after the injured were taken to hospital they realised no one had done the paperwork on the bodies.
“My team did the paperwork on two of the bodies. This lady had severe and multiple injuries. The injuries, especially to her head, were so bad you could not work out her age or size.”He said they followed all the protocols to check for life, including looking for signs of a pulse and breathing.
“A number of things can influence the detection of life, including cold, alcohol, drugs and injuries.
“Equipment used to determine life showed no form of life on the woman.”
Bradnick said when they were alerted by Carletonville Hospital that the woman was alive, they immediately began an investigation.
“This did not happen because our paramedics are not properly trained. There is no proof of any negligence by our crew. An advanced life support paramedic from another ambulance service witnessed the death declaration form.”
He said no paramedic set out to deliberately declare someone dead.
“A paramedic’s primary purpose is to save lives. This is one of the worst things that can happen to a paramedic.”
Bradnick said this was not the first time something like this had happened, “and it will happen again”.“It happened in KwaZulu-Natal in 2016 . It’s happened in Carletonville with the government ambulance service four years ago.
“These things are not meant to happen. There are protocols in place. But they do. It’s a mystery as to why. Thinking about her injuries, how long she lay waiting for the mortuary officials, the trip back to the morgue, then how she would have been undressed, weighed and then put in the fridge … we are just thankful she is alive.”Bradnick said they would co-operate with any investigation.Gauteng Forensic Pathology Services CEO Dr Paul Morule confirmed the department was conducting an investigation and that officials were in contact with the family of the woman who was in hospital.
“The outcome of the investigation will be reported to the regulatory body. It is not the duty of forensic pathology officers to declare death. Their role by law is to collect the bodies and transport them to the mortuary, and then only after a mandate from the police.”
Morule said he was unaware of any other similar incidents having occurred before in Gauteng.