A naked woman sits on a bathroom floor next to the sinks. In front of her are two other women holding a bucket of water. This scene, encapsulated in three images, went viral on social media networks on Sunday, before making its way to news platforms and satellite TV. Most people who shared the pictures captioned them “scenes of torture of psychiatric patients at Abasseya Hospital.”
In response, the Health Ministry issued a statement announcing it had suspended the manager of the hospital and 11 of its nursing staff on Tuesday, coinciding with the start of the public prosecution’s investigations into the incident. It condemned the publishing of the images, arguing that this “breached laws regarding psychiatric patients’ rights.”
However, the ministry’s actions and public commentary on the issue drew criticism from medical staff at the hospital, who refuted claims of institutional mistreatment and violating patients’ rights.
Mohamed Bultiyya, a psychiatrist at Cairo’s public Abbasseya Hospital, tells Mada Masr that the photographs were taken by a nurse who had an administrative conflict with the hospital regarding her desire to transfer from a clinical to an administrative role, and not a person outside the hospital as was reported in the press.
His comments corroborate the story outlined in a second ministry statement issued on Wednesday, which quoted the head of nursing at the Health Ministry’s General Secretariat for Mental Health as saying, “A nurse at the hospital, a mass communications student, submitted an administrative request to be transferred to the hospital’s public relations department. After her request was denied, the nurse in question photographed a patient in a state of undress as they were showering, and published these images on social media websites in order to turn public opinion against the hospital’s administration and the head of nursing at the General Secretariat of Mental Health in retaliation.”
“People just saw the image of a nurse standing in front of a patient at Abbasseya Hospital, and came to the conclusion that the former was torturing the latter,” Bultiyya says. “This baffles me. It was the responsibility of the organizations that published the pictures to question the hospital about the incident, or at least verify the identities of the people in the images, or whether or not torture had actually taken place.”
According to the psychiatrist, an investigation into the matter is currently underway at the hospital, in addition to those being conducted by the Public Prosecution and the General Secretariat of Mental Health. None have as yet released any findings.
Though there is currently no official narrative, the psychiatrist recounts the version of events which has been making the rounds in the hospital: “The incident took place in December, in women’s ward number 14. First of all, you need to understand certain standard procedures: one of the most common symptoms we see in patients is neglect of personal hygiene, and a refusal to bathe. Nurses are therefore meant to ensure that each patient showers once if not twice a day; failure to perform this duty results in disciplinary proceedings. However, with shortages of nursing staff and resources, various problems have begun to arise.”
A medical source from Abbasseya Hospital, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that the patient in the image has a disability and often refuses to bathe. “In this situation,” the source asks, “how is one nurse, or two at best, supposed to ensure that all patients in the ward, which can number between 25 to 50, have showered?”
“All that happened is that lack of space in the bathroom forced the nurse to use the area next to the sinks — the room isn’t open to the public anyway — and that the patient happened to fall to the ground during the process; but it was then that the other nurse who had a grievance against the hospital decided to take a picture,” according to the hospital employee.
Denying claims of institutional maltreatment, the source asserts that responsibility for the incident lies not with the hospital or its medical staff, who struggle to operate within the bounds of the mental health law with limited resources, but with whoever is in charge of approving the “pitiful” budget for a hospital the size of Abbasseya. “If we want to preserve patient dignity, which we all do, we need to provide them with material resources and support, not punish the weakest link in this situation, which are the nurses.”
Regarding the questions raised around the ethics of publishing such images, Mahmoud Kamel, a member of the Journalists Syndicate’s board, tells Mada Masr, “publishing this kind of news might be impactful given that the pictures are shocking and are capable of provoking public opinion and putting pressure on officials. However, a clear and rigorous code of ethics must apply here.”
“We cannot publish images that violate the privacy of others, especially if the individuals photographed are unaware and have not consented to this,” Kamel says. The board members adds that, in compliance with journalistic standards, outlets must also reach out to the accused party before publishing the images and include their response.
While none of the investigating bodies have released any findings on what may have transpired at the hospital as of yet, the prosecution is expected to conduct an inspection at the site of the incident and speak with potential eyewitnesses as part of its investigation.