Hanoi health authorities say the charitable medical organization that accidentally killed three infants in central Vietnam last weekend was never licensed to perform surgeries.
An investigation launched by the capitol's Health Department found that the Center for Researching and Aiding Smile Operation (OSCA) was never licensed to perform the cosmetics surgeries it has offered to sufferers of cleft lip and palate syndrome for years.
Last weekend, an OSCA team traveled to the central province of Khanh Hoa and operated on 11 infants -- two of whom suffered ultimately fatal complications after being sedated and another of whom perished due to post-surgical complications.
The group performed similar surgeries in the province in 2012 and 2013.
Dang Thi Thu Hoai, the organization's managing director, said the center had successfully treated around 2,500 children nationwide since it was founded in 2007.
However, the Hanoi Health Department says the center was only licensed by the Science and Technology Department to research and raise funds for so-called "smile operations" and was never licensed to perform any surgeries itself.
Dr Le Tan Phung of the Khanh Hoa Health Department monitors medical work permits in the province and said one member of the OSCA team lacked a professional medical license.
Phung said he had asked OSCA to submit a list of experts and their qualifications before allowing the surgeries. But the unlicensed doctor wasn't included on the approved list.
A team of health officials who recently visited the center office at 257 B3 Giai Phong Street, Dong Da District, found no one working.
The address is the home of the agency's director Pham Van Ai.
Hanoi inspectors also found that Ai used to run a cosmetics clinic at the same address where he conducted an unlicensed breast augmentation surgery that killed a woman in 2011.
The center’s website (osca.org.vn) hasn't been accessible since at least Monday morning.
Anesthesia the prime suspect
Ai said he suspected that the babies were killed by side effects caused by the anesthetics.
His staff performed the surgeries, he noted, but Military Hospital 87 in Nha Trang provided the operating rooms, equipment and medicine.
Ai said that the first baby developed severe complications soon after being sedated, prompting him to switch equipment.
Soon afterward, the second child suffered similar trauma.
“So I came to suspect the cause was the drug itself,” he said.
OSCA’s anesthesiologist, Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh, said the 11 babies were sedated with sevoflurane and fresofol.
Nguyen Ngoc Tuyet Van, 11 months old, and Pi Nang Tuan Huu, 19 months old, sank into critical condition after receiving anesthesia from Binh.
Van died four hours after being rushed to Khanh Hoa General Hospital on Saturday morning in a deep coma.
Huu was admitted an hour after Van, suffering seizures caused either by a lack of oxygen to the brain or an overdose of anesthesia.
He died on Monday morning.
Nguyen Quang Minh, 14 months old, remained normal throughout the sedation process but developed complications after surgery. He was rushed to the provincial hospital on Saturday afternoon but died the following morning.
Doctors described him as having fallen into a respiratory and cardiac decline brought on by anaphylactic shock caused by the anesthesia.
The eight other infants treated by the group were reportedly sent home with no reported complications. A total of 56 babies were scheduled to receive treatment from OSCA, this year, but the tragic events caused the group to stop at 11.
Nguyen Ba Hanh, director of the military hospital, said he has launched an internal investigation, but his staff also suspects that the anesthesia was the culprit.
So does Bien Thi Nga, deputy director of the pediatric department at Khanh Hoa General Hospital, which admitted the three unfortunate babies prior to their deaths.
The medicine and equipment used in the sedation process have been taken as evidence in the official investigation.
OSCA has until Saturday to report, in detail, on the treatment of each of the three deceased patients.
Luong Ngoc Khue, deputy head of the Health Ministry’s Examination and Treatment Center, has traveled to Khanh Hoa to participate in the investigation.
Khue has called the incident “the biggest” anesthesia disaster in the country’s medical history.
“Khanh Hoa Health Department will cooperate with related agencies to determine the cause as soon as possible,” he said.