By Constantinos Psillides
THE Attorney-general yesterday ordered a criminal investigation into the actions of state pathologist Eleni Antoniou after a health ministry probe into the death of a hospital patient suggested she may have falsified evidence and perjured herself to cover up alleged medical negligence.
At the same time, Health Minister Philippos Patsalis – who had ordered the hospital probe into the death of the 52-year-old woman – asked the Public Services Commission for Antoniou to be suspended for two months while the criminal investigation is being carried out.
Police spokesman Andreas Angelides told reporters yesterday that police were conducting the criminal investigation to determine whether Antoniou falsified evidence and perjured herself to cover-up medical negligence that apparently led to the woman’s death, following a routine spinal surgery in 2009.
“We are currently taking statements from everyone involved in the case and evaluating testimonies. Upon completion of our investigation we will hand over the file to the legal services which will decide on further action,” said Angelides.
Asked by the Cyprus Mail whether this meant that Antoniou’s findings and testimonies in other cases could now be contested in court leading to demands for re-trials, case dismissals or mistrials, Angelides said this depended on the courts. “Police don’t deal with matters that go to trial. This falls under judicial jurisdiction. It depends on judges and on defendants’ lawyers. Our goal is investigate the case thoroughly and on time,”
Xenia Cleanthous, underwent routine spinal surgery at the Nicosia General Hospital in June 2009 but died two days later.
Antoniou had concluded then that the cause of death was high concentration of codeine and paracetamol in the bloodstream.
Cleanthous’ family was not satisfied with the autopsy findings, accusing the doctors of negligence. Upon their insistence a tissue analysis was ordered, which showed that cause of death was a pulmonary fat embolism, most likely caused by bone marrow entering the bloodstream as a result of the spinal surgery, according to a the health ministry probe ordered after the new evidence came to light.
According to the findings, the woman reported difficulty breathing but the doctors attributed her complaints to psychological problems, and prescribed painkillers. A psychiatrist was also consulted and the woman was diagnosed with stress and given sedatives.
Unlike emboli that arise from blood clots, fat emboli are small and multiple and symptoms usually occur 1–3 days after a traumatic injury and symptoms are predominantly pulmonary such as shortness of breath and neurological agitation.
The probe concluded that the doctors were at fault for not considering that the woman’s symptoms were caused by a fat embolism. The probe also found that it was impossible for the woman to have taken codeine or paracetamol, thus concluding that the blood sample taken from her must have been tainted.
The probe also found that Antoniou did not keep proper records, after admitting that the autopsy report might have been written by a secretary or possibly another medical examiner, former state pathologist and MP and subsequently MEP, Marios Matsakis who at the time was acting on behalf of the doctors that treated Cleanthous, and was present at the autopsy.
The police spokesman told the press that if needs be the doctors that treated the woman would be called to give statements. The legal services are expected to launch similar investigations against all other doctors involved, one of whom is retired and the other gone into private practice.
This is not the first time that Antoniou’s name has been linked with a case that gone awry.
In March 2012, 30-year old Christina Kalaitzidou was found dead in bed in a flat in Dherynia, in the Famagusta district, after her bed had allegedly caught fire due to smoking.
Antoniou had examined the scene and ruled out foul play, attributing the death to smoke inhalation. Kalaitzidou’s family though insisted that the woman bore clear marks of violence on her face. Her body was exhumed and a fresh post mortem was carried out while a specialist UK-based centre was asked to provide its views.
The findings showed that the cause of death was strangulation and not smoke inhalation. The case was re-opened and her husband, 33-year old Giorgos Kyriakides was arrested in March this year and allegedly admitted to killing his wife by beating and choking her. Police investigators testified in court that he then proceeded to set the bed on fire to cover his tracks. Kyriakides trial is ongoing.
Additionally, three months ago a minor scandal broke out when a morgue assistant publicly accused the island’s state pathologists of negligence, including not always being present during routine autopsies, While his claims were rejected after a probe, the allegations have served to further cast a shadow over the forensics system.