Brazilians would be the first to admit that their public health care is fraught with problems, but no one dreamed that the ultimate danger might wear a white coat and boast a medical degree.
In a case that has riveted the nation, a senior physician from the prosperous city of Curitiba in southern Brazil is on trial for in the deaths of seven former patients, whom prosecutors say may be victims of a pattern of drug-induced murders.
Dr. Virginia Soares de Souza, who was assigned to a hospital intensive care unit at the Curitiba Evangelical Hospital, was arrested in late February on charges that she deliberately decreased respiratory life support for patients in critical condition and then pumped them up with Pavulon, which relaxes the muscles in the diaphragm and can shut down the lungs in the case of an overdose. She was released from jail this Monday, pending her trial, but state prosecutors have asked the courts to rearrest her on grounds she could try to pressure key witnesses.
Police have since widened the investigation to probe Souza’s possible involvement in the deaths of 20 more patients from the same hospital who also tested positive for Pavulon.
Souza, through an attorney, denied allegations of any wrongdoing, and hospital officials stood by her, claiming that all patients were treated according to “medically appropriate” practices. What makes the case so chilling is that the 56-year-old medical doctor was not only an experienced physician but a member of the board of the hospital where she practiced.
Seven of Souza’s colleagues also have been charged in the chase, including three doctors, a nurse, and three hospital officials. Last month, the popular Globo TV variety show, Fantástico, aired an interview with a former staffer of the Curitiba hospital who claimed to have witnessed Souza switching off the air supply to intensive-care patients dependent on breathing machines.
As the case became headline news and then a national scandal, Brasilia stepped forward. After a preliminary review of hundreds of health records since 2006, government auditors said they had found indications that dozens more patients may have died similar deaths in the ward Souza oversaw.
Mario Lobato da Costa, a physician and chief auditor with the health ministry, told reporters he had set aside the records of 300 other patients whose deaths he described as suspect. He cited a conversation captured by a court-ordered telephone tap, in which Souza allegedly tells a hospital official she planned to “disconnect the baby” but was thwarted because “the [patient’s] family disagreed.” Lobato called this “anticipating death,” which he termed “a euphemism for a crime.”
Though no motive has been described, some former hospital staff suggested that patient deaths were induced to free up beds in the intensive-care unit, a money-maker for private hospitals.