PORT Moresby General Hospital’s ongoing problem with its morgue must stop. The breakdown of one or more of the body storage containers had become an annual occurrence – and with no end in sight.
The PMGH had been plagued with this chronic problem from day one when the hospital, and its state-of-the-art morgue, was refurbished with Japanese aid and handed over to the health department about 20 years ago. Since then, it has been an uphill battle as the hospital administration struggled to find money to keep the morgue operational.
A hospital morgue – mortuary – is used for the storage of human corpses awaiting identification, or removal for autopsy, or disposal by burial or otherwise. It is proper that relatives and family members, in the true Melanesian fashion, remove the bodies of their dead ones in reasonable time for burial.
Morgues all over PNG have all too frequently been known to reach capacity. Most recently in Haiti after the earthquake, the morgue quickly filled up with victims who soon filled the parking lot out front. New York also faced an overflow after the terrorist acts of Sept 11, 2001.
The PMGH morgue design, it is understood, was flawed from the outset forcing the administrators to add a couple of large freezer containers at the back of the building to store the bodies that remained unclaimed because their families could not afford to bury them. Added to this, the PMGH morgue is also having issues with family members neglecting to claim their dead.
It is the same story every year, either the freezers break down or the morgue had reached capacity with the unclaimed bodies.
When the former happens, the bodies in the filled morgue start to decompose before they can be accommodated, or are otherwise mishandled.
Sadly, authorities have not provided details about many bodies pass through PMGH morgue each year and how many are not claimed.
The morgue is obviously an area of the hospital that can make people very uncomfortable, even if they think in advance that they won’t have any problems with it. There are many surprises in the morgue and for some people it can be a psychologically damaging experience, even if they originally thought it would just be a “cool” place to go.
Families have a right to feel that every check and balance is in place for their loved ones in the morgue. There are no shortcuts however, from time to time the PMGH has a real issue with integrity and morals.
Occasionally it was possible a body could be removed and buried before the relevant paperwork was processed. When that happens, it would become be a very big concern.
The dead people in the morgue are still very much patients of the hospital and should be looked after properly until handed over to their relatives. While hospital morgue staff can cut corners to dispose of bodies they should be reminded that it is important to stick to the rules when emptying the morgue.
In modern times, the morgues have customarily been refrigerated to delay decomposition. PMGH, we are informed, adopts positive temperature storage where bodies are kept between 2°C and 4°C. While this is usually used for keeping bodies for up to several weeks, it does not prevent decomposition, which continues at a slower rate than at room temperature.
In some countries, the body of the deceased is embalmed before disposal, which makes refrigeration unnecessary.
In many countries, the family of the deceased must make the burial within 72 hours of death but in some other countries like Papua New Guinea, for example, it is usual that burial takes place some weeks or months after the death. This is why some corpses are kept as long as one or two years at a hospital or in a funeral home. When the family has enough money to organise cost at the funerary ceremony, the corpse is taken from the cold chamber for burial, therefore, it is paramount that the cold chamber continues to function.
Perhaps, PNG may consider transportable morgue which are state-of-the-art, complete, expandable medical facilities for a fraction of the cost of the conventional construction. What are currently on the market are medically certified and designed for commercial duty and rapid deployment anywhere nationwide.
Mass burials and unmarked graves at the 9-Mile cemetery must stop. And the PMGH owes it to city residents to provide a first class morgue.