Govt to probe death of Penang schoolgirl from TB

Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye consoles Carmen’s mother, Vivian Teoh. On the left is Carmen’s aunt, Christine Yee.

GEORGE TOWN: The health ministry will investigate a claim that the Penang Hospital was negligent in treating a 19-year-old girl who died of tuberculosis (TB) last month.

Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said a high-powered team will investigate if there were any lapses in treating Carmen Yee, a sixth former who died at the hospital on Aug 26.

“In the next two weeks, a team of external independent experts will be assembled from different states to investigate claims of negligence brought by the family,” he said at a press conference at the hospital with the family today.

Carmen had coughed up blood in school on Aug 20 and was brought to a clinic by her father. A doctor found her lung x-ray to show signs of TB and referred her to the Penang Hospital for treatment.

At the hospital, her x-ray was taken again and blood was drawn. The family was told that results would take three days. Carmen also had her sputum samples taken for tests on Aug 21 and 22.

According to her family, on Aug 22, doctors at the Penang Hospital told Carmen that she had “mild TB” and would need to return for a follow-up in two weeks. A doctor had allegedly told the family to return “only if she vomited blood”.

The following day, she vomited blood. Her family called 999 for an ambulance but a hospital operator claimed there was no ambulance available. The family then took Carmen in their car to the hospital.

Midway to the hospital, an emergency operator informed the family there was no ambulance available. The family claims there were “ambulances on standby” at the accident and emergency section of the hospital, with drivers “lounging” outside.

Carmen was half-conscious and her heart stopped minutes later, her family claimed. Medics resuscitated her and brought her into intensive care, but she died on Aug 26.

“We told the deputy minister (Lee) that if the emergency doctors had kept her in hospital earlier on, she could have been saved,” said Carmen’s aunt, Christine Yee, a retired matron of a London hospital.

Carmen’s mother, Vivian Teoh, 47, said her daughter had been preparing to sit for her Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia and was among the top students at her school, SMJK Heng Ee.

Lee and his aides consoled Teoh and her husband, Yee Kok Kee, 65. He said tests carried out among Carmen’s immediate family showed no one had symptoms of TB. However, 33 of her schoolmates were found to have latent TB.

He said latent TB was not infectious but had the likelihood of developing into full TB in the future.

“Latent TB lies dormant for years, even decades, and may never be activated. It might be activated later when a person’s immunity drops.

“We tested 373 students from Carmen’s school. Eighty-two had their x-rays taken and 33 were suspected to have latent TB. We will carry out further tests to see if they indeed have latent TB and treat them,” he said.

Lee said there has been a downtrend in TB cases nationwide and the death rates were low at 6.6% as of last year. He said 24,220 TB cases were reported in 2015; 24,739 in 2016; 26,168 in 2017; and 25,837 last year.

Lee said TB was a big issue after Merdeka but was contained for about 20 years after that. It spiked again in the 1990s due to the large immigrant influx and Malaysians travelling out of the country more than usual.

He said the authorities then stepped in to increase screening of legal foreign workers through Fomema, and worker suffering from TB were sent home.

He advised those having cough-like symptoms for more than two weeks to seek immediate medical attention. “If you spot blood in your sputum, go to hospital right away.”