Records show activist did not die from natural causes

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Records show activist did not die from natural causes

A controversy surrounding the cause of death of an activist injured by a police water cannon grew on Sunday, as it was revealed that Seoul National University Hospital stated it treated the victim for brain damage caused by external trauma, a clear contradiction to the primary physician’s conclusion that it was a natural death caused by illness.

The controversy started after Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer from Boseong, South Jeolla, died on Sept. 25 following more than 300 days of treatment at the hospital after being shot by a water cannon at an antigovernment rally on Nov. 14, 2015. He received brain surgery by Dr. Paek Sun-ha, but never regained consciousness.

Dr. Paek, professor of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Seoul National University College of Medicine and Seoul National University Hospital, was the victim’s primary doctor. He pronounced last week that the farmer died of cardiopulmonary arrest and said it was a natural death. The victim’s family challenged the conclusion and demanded the hospital change the death certificate. They also rejected a police plan to conduct an autopsy, stressing that there should be no doubt about the cause of death.

While the doctor claimed cardiopulmonary arrest was the cause of death, the Korean Medical Association’s guideline said cardiopulmonary arrest, which is seen in all deaths, should not be recorded as the cause. The victim’s family and supporters raised suspicions that the doctor was under pressure from higher authorities to make the controversial claim.

According to Rep. Jung Choun-sook of the Minjoo Party of Korea, the victim’s family delegated their authority to her to obtain and analyze the hospital’s insurance applications. The Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service provided the records to Jung on Sunday and it was revealed that the hospital filed 11 applications to the insurance review and assessment service to obtain payments for treating him for a brain injury caused by an external force.

The hospital used two codes in the applications from last November until Sept. 25 of this year, documenting that Baek was treated for a traumatic subdural hemorrhage without open intracranial wounds and with an open intracranial wound.

The diagnosis on the insurance applications should be identical to the doctor’s record. Baek’s death, therefore, should have been recorded as a death caused by traumatic subdural hemorrhage. And yet the death certificate written by Dr. Paek eliminated the term “traumatic” and recorded “subdural hemorrhage.”

The insurance service applies different codes for traumatic subdural hemorrhage and non-traumatic subdural hemorrhage. If Baek was pronounced dead by traumatic subdural hemorrhage, it is an unnatural death by an external cause, which is enough to pursue a criminal case.

“If the death certificate said traumatic subdural hemorrhage, then it will contradict the doctor’s conclusion that it was a natural death by illness,” a surgeon at a general hospital told the JoongAng Ilbo on the condition of anonymity.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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