News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Parents' vigil ends in tragedy after mix-up in identities

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 15 June 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1410
  1. Bojan Pancevski
  1. Vienna

    An Austrian couple who kept a five month vigil beside the bed of a teenager in a coma who they thought was their son discovered he was a different person when he woke up and started speaking in a foreign language.

    In a bizarre mix-up, the couple's real son had actually been killed in a car crash and buried in the place of his Bosnian best friend, who had been travelling in the car with him. Each set of parents had apparently wrongly identified their sons, both of whom had severe injuries.

    The incident is similar to a case in the US state of Michigan last month, when the family of the victim of a car crash, Laura Van Ryn, 22, waited five weeks at the bedside of their comatose daughter only to realise when she awoke that she was their daughter's friend Whitney Cerak, 19. In the meantime their daughter had been buried in Whitney's place in a funeral attended by more than 1400 people.

    In this new case, the car crash happened in the southern Austrian town of Klagenfurt in February. It left two people dead and one seriously injured.

    Relatives of all three victims travelled to the hospital to identify them. The Bosnian family then left, having incorrectly identified their son, Enis Memic, 17, as one of those killed in the car crash.

    The Austrian family, on the other hand, believed the surviving patient was their son, Thomas Remschnig, 18, and visited him daily at the Gailtal Clinic in Klagenfurt. But when he finally woke up it became clear that the injured teenager was in fact Memic and that not only was their son dead but he had been buried in Memic's place in Bosnia.

    The clinic has been criticised after it emerged that even after the mistake had been spotted and the Austrian family had become aware of the truth, at least two weeks passed before the Bosnian family was informed. The clinic, however, claims that its hands were tied because of a duty of confidentiality to the patient.

    The clinic has denied making any errors and says that it followed all the proper procedures. It is cooperating with a full investigation being carried out by health ministry officials. The local police are also preparing a report to be handed to prosecutors later in the year to see whether criminal charges for negligence should be applied.

    Gustav Remschnig, the father of the dead Austrian, said: “They told us it is normal that a patient in that condition looks different to what he did before. I was even made to feel as if I was crazy to question his identity after we heard him speaking in a foreign language. They only acted after we demanded a DNA test.”

    However, the clinic's chief doctor, Manfred Freimueller, denied any wrongdoing. He said: “We reacted promptly as soon as doubt was expressed. Their concern was taken seriously, and we asked the competent authority to confirm the [patient's] identity. We then offered psychological counselling to the parents when the mix-up was realised.”

    He added that the clinic had done “everything” in its power to make sure nothing had gone wrong and said that doctor-patient confidentiality regulations had prevented it from being able to inform the family in Bosnia.

    It was also reported that at some stage after he awoke the Bosnian teenager had telephoned his mother, Hurija Memic, but she had mistaken him for a friend of his and had not understood what her son was trying to tell her.

    Speaking after the mistake had been straightened out, Mrs Memic said, “I am so happy he is alive. Having accepted his death, I never dreamed I would be able to hold him in my arms again.

    “But we do not understand why we were not informed as soon as they knew in Austria. We also don't know why Thomas's parents did not tell us. I even wanted to visit Thomas in the hospital, but his mother said it was not possible. I then got this awkward feeling in my stomach; I knew something was not right.”

    Hermann Klammer, head of the local police department that is investigating the case, said: “When the boys were brought to the hospital one was dying and one had severe injuries. The parents identified them both beyond any doubt. There had been no indications that anything was wrong, so the police in the case-like the hospital-also accepted the identification as valid.”

    The Remschnigs have taken steps to get their son's body exhumed from the grave in Bosnia and returned to Austria to be buried there.

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