LY KOK MENG felt his knees go weak as he held his dying wife in a hospital emergency room. Clutching her shivering body with both arms, the 35-year-old collapsed to his knees as staff at the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital surrounded him.
Just minutes before, doctors had given Ban Rany – 23 years old and nine months pregnant – an injection of serum. It took mere moments before she erupted into uncontrollable convulsions. Within 10 minutes, she was dead.
In one tumultuous Saturday, Ly Kok Meng lost his wife and what was to have been their second child. In the process, the incident sparked questions about why she died and shone another uncomfortable spotlight on the country’s still-troubling maternal mortality rate.
In an interview Monday, Ly Kok Meng said he was still in shock from his wife’s death, which he said was the result of carelessness on the part of the doctors.
“We trusted them,” he said. “If they had looked after her, she would not have died.”
Though he acknowledged that there had been prior complications – doctors treated Ban Rany for bleeding when she was seven months pregnant – he said she had fully recovered.
Since then, the couple had been attending weekly checkups, and she was expected to deliver in mid-November.
He took her to the hospital on Saturday, he said, because she had complained of a stomach ache. Doctors gave her the serum immediately after she arrived.
“She died not because of a stomach ache, but because of carelessness from the doctors that gave her the wrong medicine,” Ly Kok Meng said.
The hospital has denied any wrongdoing in the case.
“I think the woman’s husband should know that we helped his wife because he stayed with us the whole time and saw what we did in order to try to save his wife and child,” said Dr Say Sengly, the hospital’s director.
The serum was intended to boost the weakened woman’s energy, he said, adding that she had died because of an allergic reaction to it.
“We were not careless,” he said. “We tried to help his wife.”
A persistent problem
For maternal health specialists, Ban Rany’s death underscores the extent to which giving birth remains a perilous feat in the Kingdom.
Though a lack of antenatal-care providers and skilled birth attendants has been one of the most important roadblocks hindering efforts to reduce the maternal mortality rate – which, at 461 deaths per 100,000 live births, is the third-highest in the region – even women who have access to qualified doctors and schedule all the recommended appointments are not guaranteed a safe delivery, said Dr Veng Thai, former Phnom Penh municipal health director.
Though he could not provide specific figures, Veng Thai said a number of hospitals in Phnom Penh were short of doctors able to provide emergency obstetric care. Together with funding shortages, which he said were common at smaller hospitals, this factor severely affects the quality of medical advice and treatment pregnant women in the capital can receive.
“Especially at small hospitals with not enough money and not enough staff, carelessness can be a problem,” he said.
Veng Thai said it was unclear whether the doctors at the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital had been careless in the case of Ban Rany, though he said he would be surprised if they had committed any serious errors.
“These doctors were probably skilled and had plenty of capacity because they work at a famous hospital,” he said.
Nevertheless, as Ly Kok Meng prepares for his wife’s funeral, he said he is also preparing to file a legal complaint against the hospital.
“I have lost my beloved,” he said. “We were married for five years, and we never once had a fight. She was still so young.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY IRWIN LOY