Bucharest — Already battling pancreatic cancer, the ordeal for a patient at one of Romania’s top hospitals was about to get unimaginably worse.
Rushed to the emergency room one night with internal bleeding, the 66-year-old woman was set on fire when a spark from an electric scalpel ignited an alcohol-based fluid used to clean her body before doctors operated. Unprepared, they put the flames out with a bucket of water.
The patient, whose name hasn’t been released, was left with burns covering two-fifths of her skin. She died a week later.
The incident at Bucharest’s Floreasca Hospital dominated the country’s front pages and TV news broadcasts for days. President Klaus Iohannis called it “catastrophic and unacceptable”, promising comprehensive reforms.
But the gruesome tale should come as no surprise: Romania spends less on health care than any other EU member-state, has the highest mortality rate from treatable diseases and one of the bloc’s lowest life expectancies. The government has built one new hospital in three decades.
The situation, caused by underfunding and widespread graft, resonates beyond the country’s borders. Sub-par medical care drives thousands to move west each year in the country of 20-million. As many as 5-million Romanians now live elsewhere, stoking populism — as in the case of Brexit — and leaving uncertain economic prospects back home.
Romania’s lack of investment in its taxpayer-funded system stretches back decades and spans the political spectrum. What money that has been allocated has often been spent inefficiently, or embezzled.
Romania ranks second-worst in the EU in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, just ahead of neighbouring Bulgaria. Examples of why are commonplace in its health-care industry.
In one, prosecutors established that a hyperbaric chamber for treating burns was bought by managers at a Bucharest hospital at seven times market value. When the time came to use the equipment — after a fire in a nightclub in 2015 — it turned out to be only suitable for anti-ageing procedures.
Sixty-four people died in the blaze, many of whom could have been saved if they’d received proper medical care. A lucky few survivors were treated abroad.
Elsewhere, a hospital supplier was found to have endangered millions of lives by selling diluted and counterfeit disinfectants that allowed the spread of bacteria. Its director was sentenced to prison and its owner committed suicide.
“Romania’s health-care system is like a bag that’s not only almost empty, but also full of holes,” said Vlad Mixich, a health-care analyst and doctor who’s also a board member at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
While staff salaries have been boosted repeatedly, doctors and nurses leave the country in droves for jobs in richer Western European nations, exacerbating a labour drought that’s afflicting the whole of the continent’s east.
The European Commission found in 2018 that Romania is the source of almost half of all EU mobile health-care workers. Italy is their top destination.
“Doctors aren’t leaving because of wages,” Laura Zarafin, an emergency physician at Bucharest’s Colentina Hospital said in a radio interview. “A lot of young doctors are leaving because they’re disgusted by the system.”
Some Romanians have taken matters into their own hands.
Touched by the case of a teenager with leukaemia who couldn’t raise the €150,000 euros needed for treatment abroad in time to save his life, Carmen Uscatu and Oana Gheorghiu, neighbours in a Bucharest apartment block, began fund-raising themselves to help other children.
For years, they helped renovate hospital facilities, imported oncology drugs and donated books and televisions to patients.
Their Give Life Association charity eventually gathered cash from 300,000 people and 4,000 companies to build a €26m children’s cancer wing at an existing state-run hospital in the capital.
“We wanted to do more than just donate some money,” Uscatu said in an interview. “We can’t send everyone abroad for treatment. We need to create the conditions here.”
They lay the blame for the state of affairs at the door of Romania’s politicians during the past three decades.
“Citizens realised we need to do something to make our leaders react,” Uscatu and Gheorghiu said. “There may be light at the end of the tunnel because the new government’s rhetoric suggests it wants to get involved.”
The authorities are seeking EU cash to help build regional hospitals. But years of public-wage hikes have left a huge hole in the budget.
Even with the president and government working in harmony — a rarity in Romanian politics — it’s hard to see where additional funding can come from.
For now, Romanians want those responsible for the cancer patient’s death brought to book.
Emanuel Ungureanu, a legislator from a new anticorruption party who first brought the incident to light, has unearthed multiple cases highlighting the wider system’s flaws. He complains of hospitals teetering on the brink of collapse, medicine shortages and doctors who hire relatives lacking essential medical training.
But it’s the cancer patient’s horrific demise that’s unsettled him most.
“As a patient I get the feeling I’m not safe — you discover you also need to be fireproof in this country,” he said in an interview. “The system’s rotten to its core.”