Don’t let another Kam Agong die due to poor maternal healthcare in Sarawak

Rural medical services and maternal healthcare could be a determining factor for politicians during the Sarawak elections in 2021, says Lawrence Jayaraj. He is the son-in-law of Kam Agong, who died one month after complications suffered during childbirth.

On Feb 2, the education ministry allocated RM100 million to rebuild 32 dilapidated schools in Sarawak and a further RM25.7 million for maintaining and upgrading 135 schools.

This is all very well and good for the schools. But will a similar cash injection be given to improve rural medical services, especially maternal healthcare, in Sarawak?

No doubt that a similar large investment is also needed in Sabah.

Most people in towns and cities in the peninsula and East Malaysia take health services for granted. When they are ill, a clinic or hospital is not too far away, but for the rural areas, delaying a trip to the clinic or hospital can be a matter of life or death. This is especially true for some of the more remote villages in Peninsular Malaysia, but the issue is more severe in East Malaysia.

In 2002, Kam Agong, gave birth to her eighth child. She was from the Lun Bawang settlement in Long Semadoh, in the highlands. When she knew she was about to deliver, she was forced to travel to Lawas district hospital — a journey of five hours in a four-wheel drive vehicle — to deliver her baby.

Kam Agong’s son-in-law Lawrence Jayaraj.

Lawrence said: “Kam Agong almost died during the Caesarian section, as she lost a lot of blood. She was never referred to a gynaecologist, despite complications.

“The hospital discharged her five days after the C-section. When she was readmitted for the second time, for secondary postpartum haemorrhage (SPPH), Kam Agong was not treated properly, nor was she referred to the Miri General Hospital or to a gynaecologist.

“Despite having severe infections at the two insertions on her abdomen (upper and lower segments), she was discharged.”

His allegations are damning. He adds: “She was discharged, probably because they wanted her to die in the ulu (Long Semadoh), where her case would go unnoticed.

“The two doctors who performed the emergency lower segment Caesarean section were not gynaecologists.

“Lawas District Hospital has been without a gynaecologist, or any specialist, for the last 55 years.

“This is common in Sarawak where hospitals are not adequately equipped and function without any specialists.”

A few years after her death, Kam Agong’s daughter, Agnes Padan and her husband, Lawrence, sued the hospital for medical negligence. No lawyer wanted to represent them. The politicians were also reluctant to help.

Lawrence said: “Lawyers wanted to settle the case quickly and make their 30% from the settlement amount. They did not think they could win the case against the government.”

There was an initial attempt to pay Kam Agong’s family RM10,000 in an out-of-court settlement, but the family refused because they wanted the truth behind her death to be exposed.

Left with little choice, Lawrence and Agnes decided to defend themselves. They persevered and despite the various setbacks, they won.

A decade later, they co-directed a documentary about Kam Agong in an attempt to resolve the sorry state of rural healthcare and poor maternal services.

Lawrence expressed disappointment that none of the defendants had appeared in court during the trial.

He is outraged that there are no proper statistics with regards to maternal mortality rates in Sarawak.

His research, in preparation for the trial and subsequent documentary, revealed that a new hospital had been proposed for Lawas, in the Seventh Malaysia Plan, but even when the 11th Malaysian Plan came along, there was still no hospital.

He said: “We have been trying for the last 17 years to get a specialist for Lawas District Hospital and the hospital constructed.

“We are trying to meet Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and the health ministry this month. We will also stage a protest assembly at Parliament on March 19 to commemorate the 17th anniversary of Kam Agong’s death.”

Lawrence said that after the documentary had been aired at the Kuching Freedom Film Fest, in October 2018, many people were upset and shared similar experiences.

When asked about the reaction from the authorities, he said, “there was none.”

His wife, Agnes, is now contemplating taking part in the Sarawak state elections to create greater awareness on rural medical services and maternal healthcare.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.