Footprints: VULTURES OF NEGLECT

Published October 30, 2022
THE Nishtar Hospital’s anatomy department where the putrefied bodies were found on the rooftop.—Sohail Qureshi
THE Nishtar Hospital’s anatomy department where the putrefied bodies were found on the rooftop.—Sohail Qureshi

I HAD been lounging in the hostels of the Nishtar Medical College when suddenly, there was a commotion.

A crowd of curious onlookers gathered outside to see what was happening. It transpired that several vultures had descended on the roof of the nearby mortuary.

Upon inquiring from a hospital employee why the large birds were flocking to the hospital’s roof, I learned of the macabre reason.

The employee told me several human bodies had been placed on the roof of the hospital after embalming them. The vultures had subsequently swooped in to make a meal of the putrefied bodies.

This happened some 15 years ago, when I was a student at the Bahauddin Zakaria University. I had been visiting some former classmates and friends who were pursuing medical degrees at the Nishtar Medical College when this incident transpired.

Medical students told me at the time that it was common practice for the mortuary to place the bodies on the roof for decomposition. After all the soft tissues had been removed from the body, these workers would sell the skeletons to medical students. The students would use the skeletons and bones for practical studies. I still remember seeing skeletons and different bones installed in my friends’ rooms.

The incident I have mentioned above happened during the tenure of the former principal of Nishtar Medical College, Laiq Hussain Siddiqui. He later ordered the construction of an airy room to keep the putrefied bodies in to prevent such ghastly occurrences in the future.

The memories of that day returned on Oct 15, when social media was flooded with videos showing decaying bodies found on the roof of the hospital’s mortuary.

Someone had tipped the government off about the bodies, and CM’s Adviser Chaudhry Zaman Gujjar had promptly swooped in on the hospital.

Perhaps years, or even decades too late.

A six-member committee was later constituted to probe the matter. Based on the committee’s report, Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi eventually suspended three doctors, as many employees of the hospital, as well as two SHOs of the Punjab Police over their alleged negligence in the matter.

It bears mentioning how the process works. All unidentified bodies are first brought to the hospital’s mortuary, and those that remain unclaimed are eventually handed over to the college’s anatomy department to be used later for teaching purposes. Decomposing bodies are not kept in the mortuary due to their foul smell. Instead, they are placed in a caged, airy room on the rooftop to facilitate the decomposition process.

Inquiry findings

When approached for comment, a member of the government inquiry team shared that the inquiry had found that the officials and employees of the hospital had been negligent and had violated medical ethics as well as hospital SOPs. The government had taken action and suspended the officials and would also hold a departmental inquiry against them.

However, the official also pointed out that all public medical colleges and universities’ anatomy departments had been using unclaimed, unidentified bodies to impart practical knowledge to medical students. The students were also given training on how to ensure the sanctity of the body while they utilised them, he said.

He explained that the police usually send two types of bodies to the hospital — those that were connected to a crime or those that had died of natural causes. The police get a post-mortem examination done on bodies related to any crime, while unidentified people who appear to have died of medical complications are handed in without an autopsy.

The administration once used to hand over bodies to the Edhi Foundation, which would give them a burial. However, the foundation has stopped collecting the bodies due to a shortage of funds since the demise of its founder, Abdul Sattar Edhi.

In the official’s opinion, it was the responsibility of the state to ensure the dignity and respect of all its citizens and ensure a dignified burial on their death. The doctors and police are not responsible for ensuring the burial of bodies. Since the district administration manages all the graveyards in a city, he said it should ensure the burial of unidentified bodies with dignity.

Former MS’s view

I also spoke to a former medical superintendent of the Nishtar Hospital, who said the Nishtar Medical University vice chancellor and college principal would have to approach the chairman of the local union council and police to ensure the burial of all bodies with dignity.

He argued that it is not the anatomy department’s responsibility to arrange the burial of the bodies. They have to perform practical studies on the bodies, and the university administration must deal with administrative issues. He also complained that the university had not increased the capacity of its mortuary and only one or two of its freezers are in working condition.

He said the administration should build proper rooms to store bodies and also establish an acid well for embalming purposes to teach students, either by demonstrating prosected specimens or by dissection done by the students themselves.

Police view

Multan City Police Officer Khurrum Shehzad Haider deplored the placement of the bodies under the open sky. He said that the police had handed over the bodies under Section 174 of the PPC. He explained that the putrefied bodies could not be frozen but should be placed in a caged enclosure and not under the sun. He added that the medical university administration or mortuary officials had not intimated to them about the burial of the unidentified and unclaimed bodies.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2022

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