Court hears shocking case of negligence

  • 2001-12-13
  • Elina Cerpa, RIGA
The regional court in the eastern Latvian town of Rezekne handed down a three-year sentence on Dec. 4 to a doctor charged with negligence in the death of a two-year-old girl.

Tatjana Gurjanova, a former general practitioner at Rezekne Hospital, was charged in connection with the death of Jana Koluko, who was admitted to the hospital on the evening of Nov. 17, 2000, with stomach pains.

She died the next morning of an intestinal blockage and complications that were related to the removal of her appendix two years earlier.

"I'm quite happy with the sentence," said Koluko's mother Kristina Murzina. "But we didn't know until the end that (Gurjanova) would get any sentence at all, so we were on edge the entire trial."

When she was arrested and charged, Gurjanova pleaded not guilty. She is planning to appeal, her legal representative, Augusts Punjats, said.

"Our plan is to have Gurjanova acquitted," he said. "This is an unbelievably strong sentence. The court didn't consider Gurjanova's personality."

Jazeps Korsaks, the head doctor at Rezekne Hospital, is also backing Gurjanova's appeal. He said Latvian medical personnel was not adequately protected against malpractice lawsuits because insurance premiums were too high.

Doctors in state hospitals, who can make as little as 100 lats ($160) a month, can't afford to pay for steep medical malpractice insurance premiums and end up with no legal protection.

Working together, Korsaks and Punjats have found 10 points on which to appeal her case.

"I think this is more than a harsh sentence," Korsaks said. "For a doctor there can't be a stronger punishment than her conscience."

After testimony from several witnesses, including Murzina, and presentation of the coroner's inquest, the court found Gurjanova negligent in fulfilling her professional medical duties, which caused the death of a patient.

Her three-year jail sentence includes time served since the beginning of December. She is also barred from practicing medicine for the next five years.

Viesturs Boka, president of the Latvian doctors' union, said this is the harshest penalty handed down for medical negligence since the restoration of Latvian independence in 1991.

"This is certainly one of the sternest sentences that has been given to a professional doctor," he said.

According to testimony during the trial, after Jana Koluko was admitted to Rezekne Hospital with stomach pains, she was left unattended the entire night by Gurjanova, the surgeon on duty.

Gurjanova testified she slept the entire night on a cot in the hospital but said it was because she was ill.

The two-year-old's condition deteriorated quickly through the night, witnesses said, until she was crying from the pain and repeated vomiting. No tests were run, and the girl's lower-than-normal body temperature wasn't taken into consideration. She was hooked up to an intravenous drip and given pain killers, but neither treatment had any effect on her condition.

At one point a nurse, who saw the girl's fingers were turning blue, suggested they be warmed up, Murzina said. Then when Jana started to vomit bloody liquid, the nurse said she would go and wake Gurjanova up.

But, Murzina said, Gurjanova never arrived.

By the time the hospital's chief surgeon arrived at 8 a.m. and prepared for surgery, it was too late. Jana Koluko died on her way to surgery.

"It's been an oppressive year," Murzina said, sighing deeply. She and her husband, Vadim Koluko, moved from Rezekne to the capital of Riga to escape the memories of their deceased daughter.

The Rezekne court also heard a civil suit filed by Vadim Koluko, the 2-year-old's father, asking that Rezekne Hospital pay 2,167 lats for funeral expenses and a tombstone.

The court awarded Koluko the full amount.