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Grisly Medical Scandal Rocks Poland

Poland is reeling under the impact of a horrendous medical scam involving trade in human corpses. The sanctity of the hallowed medical profession is at risk.

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Scenes such as this one will prompt shudders for a while in Poland

It sounds like a scene from a horror movie – undertakers from Funeral Homes bribing emergency medical workers to poison patients, instead of attending to them quickly, all for the sake of some hefty profits.

But what seems like spine-tingling fiction is in fact a macabre reality in Poland.

Trade in human corpses unearthed

Polish police are uncovering a scandalous trade in human corpses in the industrial metropolis of Lodz.

The police department there has confirmed a report in the respected daily Gazeta Wyborcza that funeral homes in the city of Lodz had paid up to 1,800 zlotys ($450) for notification of death.

The report also alleged that emergency medical personnel might even have poisoned some patients and facilitated their death to make some extra money.

Poland’s security system allows 4,000 zloty for funeral expenses. This means that undertakers make a tidy profit even after paying the alleged bribes.

"Months of work by police has confirmed signs of unlawful and inhumane acts by emergency first aid workers and funeral parlours," Lodz police spokesman Jaroslaw Berger said in a statement.

A similar pattern in most cases

The report in the Gazeta Wyborcza has hit Poland like a lightning bolt. The country reacted with horrified outrage to the first bits of the story, but the article seems to be only the tip of a iceberg. More chilling facts and cases have since come tumbling out of the closet.

Police officials in Lodz spoke of a particular case, in which an old pensioned woman lost consciousness.

When her husband called for an ambulance, it arrived only after a couple of hours. In the meantime, however a hearse surfaced in front of the house, without anybody having called for one.

In this case, the woman did eventually need the hearse. She died on the spot.

Officials now say that about two dozen similar incidents took place in the past years. In each case, a hearse turned up around the same time as the ambulance in front of the house, which sent out an emergency call.

Deadly delays

Police investigating the case of the old woman believe that several facts point towards a deliberate delay on part of the emergency medical workers as well as a well-planned murder.

Medical workers supposedly injected the woman with the drug, Pavolun to calm her and stabilise her circulation. But Pavolun, which is not available over the counter, is only administered to patients on artificial respiration.

The police are now reopening cases in which the patients had choking fits and died of asphyxiation in ambulances.

They are also considering exhuming bodies of people who died in ambulances to check for traces of poison.

Meanwhile medical and health care authorities are planning to order a thorough investigation into the alleged drug Pavulon that was administered to patients, and examine whether that led to a fairly quick and painful death.

Corruption rampant in Poland

Though the medical scam has come as a shock to the country, the decade-old nexus between funeral home staff and medical workers in hospitals is tacitly understood to be a fairly common practice in corruption-riddled Poland.

Undertakers on the lookout for "customers" are alleged to have approached poorly paid medical workers in hospitals and pay them an advance fee of 1200 to 1800 zlotys (333 to 500 euro).

The workers, in turn, are alleged to have pressured family members of patients to select a particular funeral home.

Poor health-care record

It's a long Polish tradition, but not a honored one, to pay a tip for good, prompt health care. Some would call it bribery.

Many hospitals in the country are cash-strapped, and medical workers are routinely paid salaries near or below a basic liveable level. The incentive to offer and accept bribes is clear.

But the cold-bloodedness of these newly-alleged crimes has come as a shock to society.

"If it’s true, then one can’t just talk of it as a crime, but as a pervasive break with all ethical and human values," said Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

It will be a long time before the medical profession in Poland recovers from the beating it has taken, to earn the trust of the people again.