A 31-year-old woman who suffered severe head wounds in an attack by an ax-wielding assailant in Sihanoukville on Tuesday died at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh on Wednesday afternoon after being denied a brain scan, blood transfusions and surgery, according to her husband.
Oum Phana, 31; her mother Touch Som Oun, 67; and her 5-year-old son were hospitalized at the Khmer-Soviet hospital on Tuesday afternoon after they were attacked —along with four of Oum Phana’s other children—by an unidentified suspect while they slept inside their tin shack in Sihanoukville’s Muoy commune.
One of the four children, Oum Phana’s 13-year-old daughter, also succumbed to her injuries on Wednesday while being transported from the Preah Sihanouk provincial referral hospital to the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital in Phnom Penh along with two of her siblings.
In a hallway outside the Khmer-Soviet hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) shortly before his wife passed away at about 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Kong Phearum—who was at sea fishing at the time of the attack—fought back tears while explaining his interactions with hospital staff over the past day and night.
“At 8 p.m. yesterday [Tuesday], I went to see a doctor and he told me that my wife needed to have her head scanned before surgery, but they just left her alone when I told him I didn’t have enough money, after the doctor asked for $250 for the scan,” Mr. Phearum said, adding that he could not remember the doctor’s name or face.
“After I saw that the situation looked bad, I asked the doctor to operate on my wife, but he said, ‘You have to pay $250 for the head scan, then we can do the surgery,’” he said.
Mr. Phearum added that he had subsequently presented the doctor with a “poor family” medical card—issued by commune authorities to families that are unable to pay for their own health services—but was told he would need further verification from representatives of an organization waiting in the hospital’s lobby.
He said he did not know the name of the organization.
“After I met the organization and got a letter from them showing that we were poor people, the doctor told me to find blood for my family by myself, but at 9 a.m. today, they told me my wife would not survive,” Mr. Phearum said, adding that the doctor informed him that his poor card would have been little use in any case.
“He told me that it only covers small injuries, but that it cannot help situations like mine,” he said, adding that he spent the rest of the night squeezing his wife’s manual ventilator to provide her with oxygen.
Contacted by telephone after his wife’s death on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Phearum said that he, along with another family member, had also offered to provide blood for his wife, but was told by the same doctor that a transfusion would be of no use if the family could not pay for the brain scan.
“I decided to give my blood, along with my brother-in-law, to my wife, but the doctor told me that even though you have the blood, you need to pay for the scanner,” he said.
A medic working in the ICU on Wednesday—about 30 minutes before Oum Phana died—told reporters that it was apparent that the woman had sustained injuries that could not be treated.
“His wife cannot survive because her injuries are too severe, so we can’t help,” said the man, who refused to provide his name but was wearing a name card that read “Samedy.”
Asked why Mr. Phearum had been told that his wife needed a $250 brain scan, blood transfusions and surgery if she was fated to die, he declined to answer the question and responded by explaining the hospital’s operating procedure.
“Technically, we have to check first, and if the scan finds there is a zero percent chance of survival, we are unable to help and provide surgery,” he said, adding only that Oum Phana had not met the requirements for a scan.
“If we had seen that she was conscious, vomiting blood or feeling head pain, we must scan,” he said, before threatening to call security if reporters did not leave the ICU immediately.
Reached by telephone on Wednesday afternoon, the hospital’s deputy director, Chhoeung Yav Yen, said he was unaware of the case, but that a poor card could not be used to obtain treatment for a whole family, but only for the person whose name was listed on it.
“The poor card means that when people show it, that’s like you are bringing money,” Mr. Yav Yen said. “The poor card is issued to a single person, so how can you use it to help your whole family?”
Mr. Yav Yen suggested that Mr. Phearum’s problems may also have been due to miscommunication between the grief-stricken man and his staff.
“It might be that he told them he has money,” he said, adding that $250 was indeed the going rate for a brain scan at the hospital.
Mr. Yav Yen added that if Mr. Phearum had wanted his wife to receive a blood transfusion, it was his responsibility to make that happen.
“First, the family has to find blood by themselves, or ask for it from their relatives,” he said. “If it is a situation where they really need it, then the hospital will donate it, but you have to understand that blood cannot be bought easily, and you at least need to find people to donate it.”
Hospital director Ngy Meng was not in his office on Wednesday and could not be reached by telephone.
James McCabe, head of the Child Protection Unit, a policing unit supported by the Cambodian Children’s Fund that is assisting with the investigation and providing support to the family, said on Wednesday evening that the three children at the Kantha Bopha hospital —including the 5-year-old initially hospitalized at the Khmer-Soviet hospital—were in stable condition.
Doctors at the Khmer-Soviet hospital, however, had decided that the injuries sustained by Ms. Som Oun, the grandmother, were “non-survivable,” he said.
As Mr. Phearum accompanied the bodies of his deceased wife and daughter back to Sihanoukville last night, Preah Sihanouk provincial police chief Chuon Narin said his forces were continuing to investigate the attack on the family.
“Today, we have more clues from our investigation, but it is not as easy to arrest the suspect in this case as it would be with a robbery,” he said.
“But we won’t let this suspect be free for much longer.”