“A black burn mark; 10 cm in length and 3 cm in width on the left thigh.” This description is notably absent from the official narrative of Dr. Sarah Abu Bakr’s death at the Matareya Teaching Hospital in mid October.
Abu Bakr’s fellow physicians, however, some of whom examined her body, affirm that a burn mark was present, and believe that she was killed by the electrical malfunction of a water heater on hospital premises.
Despite mounting evidence that the doctor was electrocuted, and contrary to accounts from the emergency doctor on call and those who found the body, as well as a report from the district doctor, the Health and Population Ministry has presented another cause of death entirely, in what some see as an attempt to abnegate responsibility.
The diverging reports regarding the circumstances of Abu Bakr’s death form the most recent point of discord between medical professionals and the ministry, which has faced criticism in recent years for not taking sufficient measures to protect the interests of hospital staff, or guarantee safe and sustainable working conditions.
On preliminary investigation
At 10:30 pm on Saturday October 13, a doctor at the Matareya Teaching Hospital climbed the stairs leading from the doctors’ dormitory to the bathroom. The door was locked and she saw that water was leaking from underneath it. She assumed that someone was taking a shower and that, as usual, the drain was clogged. However, when she returned at 1 am, she found water still leaking from under the locked door. The security guard was called, and together they forced their way into the bathroom to find Abu Bakr’s body convulsing, her right hand covering her face and a black burn mark surrounded by white tissue on her thigh.
An emergency room doctor was called to the scene and found the body in the same state. He wrote in his report, “A cursory examination of the above indicates the following: clinical death, cessation of all vital functions, dilated pupils, presence of a black elongated shape on the left thigh. Cause of death cannot be ascertained. The corpse was transferred to the hospital morgue and is now under the prosecution’s jurisdiction.”
The following day, a doctor from Matareya Medical District went to examine Abu Bakr’s body at the request of the head of Matareya Police Station. Her report corroborates the emergency room doctor’s findings: “In reference to your letter addressed to us with regards to Case 7878/2018 (of the Matareya administration), we conducted a medical examination on the deceased, Sara Abu Bakr Mostafa al-Sayed, and found the following: the deceased was in her 30s, has injuries on the left part of her body; a scratch on the ear and a small cut on the thumb. There is a long black burn mark on her thigh and no fractures or abrasions were found. No cause of death is determined, therefore, it is up to the prosecution to draw conclusions.”
The family of the deceased doctor wanted to bury her without awaiting the results of the investigation and without filing a legal case. According to hospital staff, they did not want to subject themselves to the protracted proceedings involved in a legal investigation, particularly awaiting the results of an autopsy.
Health Ministry spokesperson Khaled Mujahid decisively ruled out reports of anything unusual in Abu Bakr’s death, asserting, “Rumors circulating that the doctor’s death was due to electric shock are incorrect. There is no evidence of that.”
According to the ministry’s narrative, Abu Bakr died of cardiac arrest, induced by a sharp drop in blood pressure.
This firm stance stands in stark contrast to the reports of the emergency room and district doctors who examined Abu Bakr in an official capacity, and the testimonies of her colleagues, who also saw the body.
The burn mark on the deceased doctor’s thigh was clear and defined, a doctor who examined the body tells Mada Masr, speaking on condition of anonymity, explaining that a burn caused by a flame leaves an uneven wound, whereas an electrical burn is uniformly black and evenly shaped. “There is no source of fire in the bathroom, and the only source of electricity is the water heater and the electrical wires connecting to it,” the doctor adds. “There is no doubt that an electric shock from the water heater was the cause of death.”
While some reports, like that of the district doctor, are a matter of public record, a number of doctors speaking out on the incident have chosen to conceal their identities. Some suspect that direct or indirect pressure to comply with the Health Ministry’s narrative is behind the reluctance to testify.
In a televised interview, the doctor who wrote the first report said that after examining Abu Bakr’s body, a hospital employee had asked him to cite “a sharp drop in blood pressure” as the cause of death on his report. Several days later, despite doctors’ reports to the contrary, ministry spokesperson Khaled Mujahid would report this to have been the cause of death.
The hospital administration also removed all electrical appliances from the doctors’ dormitory following Abu Bakr’s death, according to two doctors from the Matareya Teaching Hospital, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. Their actions amount to interference with what should have been the scene of investigation.
Mujahid, speaking in a separate television interview, seemingly confirmed that the administration’s actions had been at the ministry’s behest. “Once the death occurred, we called the junior manager, the police officer and the maintenance team to check the safety of the electrical connections.”
Amid evidence that the ministry sought to stifle evidence in official documentation that would oppose the narrative of death by natural causes, Mujahid dismissed accounts circling on social media that Abu Bakr received an electric shock, appearing to challenge them to make official testimony. “Look with all due respect to the doctors,” the ministry spokesperson said, during a phone in to the DMC television channel, “there is only one place for them to testify.”
The two Matareya Teaching Hospital doctors agree that the language used on television by both the spokesperson, and by the emergency doctor had an impact. They affirmed that the administration intended to lay the rumors of an electrical malfunction to rest, pressuring those who wrote the medical reports, as well as witnesses, to adopt the ministry’s account.
Doctor Ahmed Fathy, a member of the Doctors Syndicate, is unsurprised by reports that the ministry attempted to push and substantiate its own narrative. “There are people trying to deny and cover up the crime and circumvent investigations by the authorities. Of course it is not in their interests for the truth of the matter to be revealed,” he says.
Moreover, the syndicate member sees the ministry’s statement as an insult. He points out that their announcing the cause of death before the end of the investigation “denigrates the authority of the public prosecutor’s office” as well as “undermining the intelligence” of the doctors who saw the corpse immediately after it was discovered, and the doctors who wrote the medical reports.
Unfortunately, said Fathy, the syndicate’s move has come somewhat late, since hospital doctors did not register an official complaint. However, he tells Mada Masr they are in communication about the issue. “We will not give up this case,” he adds.
Although Sarah Abu Bakr’s family are reticent to pursue a case, her colleagues at the Matareya Teaching Hospital and the Doctors Syndicate are insistent on ensuring that an investigation into her death is concluded. “The family may have given up their right, but we will not give up society and doctors’ rights,” Fathy says. “What happened to Sarah can never again happen to any other doctors here. This is the largest educational hospital in Egypt.”