By Constantinos Psillides
SERIOUS questions pertaining to lapses in the system were raised yesterday when a 40-year-old woman from Romania was found dead in her Larnaca apartment after her five-year-old son was seen calling for help in the hallway of the building just after 7am.
Under the care of welfare services but living in conditions so squalid that police officers had to wear masks before entering the third-floor flat, Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou yesterday ordered an investigation into how the system failed both mother and child.
Firefighters called to the scene in the morning by neighbours who had found the young boy wandering around the building, found the woman dead inside the flat after breaking the lock to enter. The child had inadvertently locked himself out when he left the apartment.
A state pathologist ruled out foul play and the exact cause of death will be determined by a post mortem.
However the woman had visited Larnaca General Hospital last week and was diagnosed with a duodenal perforation. She had refused treatment and left the hospital.
Perforation anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract is normally considered a surgical emergency as it leaves the patient open to bacterial infections.
On Monday, she had asked a neighbour for money and medicine, complaining that she had stomach pains. The neighbour told reporters she had given her some medicine and told her to go to the hospital but she replied, “It will pass,” the neighbour said.
When first responders entered the flat yesterday they were confronted by a mountain of rubbish.
“We could not get in,” said a neighbour who ran to provide assistance. “The child was living in squalid conditions for so long and we didn’t know. You cannot imagine what condition the child and the flat were in,” she said.
Neighbours said they long knew of the woman’s financial troubles, but never imagined the state of her flat.
“We never went inside,” another woman said. A male neighbour interviewed by TV reporters said he could frequently smell the foul odours coming from the flat.
Television footage showed piles of litter, empty food cartons, clothing, boxes and other stuff.
The floor could not be seen and the stink was so bad that police officers had to wear masks. “The woman basically lived in a rubbish dump,” state pathologist Nicholas Charalambous said. He said the garbage was piled one-metre high in every room.
The woman’s situation appeared synonymous with what is called Diogenes syndrome – a psychological disorder that involves hoarding of rubbish and severe self-neglect. It is characterised by domestic squalor and social alienation.
The child was bathed and fed by neighbours and was later put under the care of the welfare office. There was no information as regards a father.
Neighbours said the woman was seen regularly with the child collecting rubbish. She was also a regular at a cafeteria, where she used to eat, and beg for money and assistance.
She was unemployed and until recently was a recipient of state assistance.
That assistance was cut in December but officials did not immediately offer a reason.
Reports said it was cut after welfare officers were no longer able to get in touch with the woman. Welfare department official Marina Efthymiadou said they were looking into the matter.
“At this moment I do not know the reasons why the assistance was cut,” she said. “We need to complete our investigation and have all the facts before us before we make any statements.”
The same official confirmed that the welfare services look in on recipients of state assistance; but she was not in a position to say whether the welfare officers visited the woman’s house since assistance was stopped.
Commissioner for Children Rights Leda Koursoumba raised a number of questions regarding the role welfare services played in the matter. “How come they didn’t know about her condition? Were they monitoring? They said that an officer of the Welfare Services visited the house in December. How is it possible he or she didn’t notice what was going on? The garbage we saw on TV must have been accumulating for quite a while. And how come they cut her off? Did they check if she could make a living, or if she was employed? Did they evaluate her psychological condition? Why didn’t they make sure she could perform her role as a parent?” Koursoumba asked.
An investigation would be launched by her office to help answer some of these questions, she added.
Asked why the woman was released by Larnaca General Hospital, despite being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, Health Minister Petros Petrides said yesterday the woman was within her rights to refuse treatment. “There is absolutely no law forcing people to receive treatment. Everyone who is to undergo a surgical operation has to give consent. If he doesn’t he can simply walk out,” the minister said.
It should be noted that in cases where the patient is unable to pay hospital fees due to extraordinary circumstances, exceptions are being made by the public hospitals.
Asked why the doctors didn’t notify welfare services or the police, to report that a dying woman was refusing treatment, Petrides said it was uncharted territory. “The way things went up to now is that you get sick, you go to the doctor, you get diagnosed, and you get the treatment. To refuse life-saving treatment is unheard of,” said the health minister.