Families in agony as hospitals detain bodies over unpaid bills

Mary Nyaigero holds portrait photo of her deceased son Freddy Chieff 37 who was hospitalized at The Karen Hospital Langata Road on August 4 and died on October 6 after being diagnosed with pancreas ailment. The hospital is demanding Sh18 million to release the body, an amount the family is not able to raise.

Mary Munyao’s life was shattered following the news of her nephew’s death. For three weeks now, she wakes up with her bed sheets drenched in tears after a night of pain and anguish.

On May 2, she lost her orphaned nephew. The young man had shown drive and ambition in a city that can be unforgiving. Unfortunately, Nairobi, which held so much promise for a young Peter Munyao, was also the city that devoured him.

But death did not come with its traditional finality. Instead, Peter’s demise at Kenyatta National Hospital, was the beginning of a new problem for Mary.

A sobbing Mary says the hospital wants Sh1 million bill cleared before she can have the body, an amount she cannot raise.

“I held a fundraiser and managed only Sh18,000. I added Sh20,000 which I borrowed and gave the hospital. Where am I supposed to get the rest?” Mary poses, dabbing her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief, the only constant in her life now.

Mimi sina kitu. Sina anything (I don’t have anything). What will you do with a dead boy anyway? The boy is dead, it is not like he is alive and one day he can work and pay up.”

Peter Munyao, 21, who died on May 2, at Kenyatta National Hospital after one month in the ICU. His aunt cannot be given the body as there is an outstanding bill.

Peter’s case is just one of hundreds countrywide where the next of kin are denied access to the bodies of their departed family members because of outstanding hospital bills. Some of these cases drag on for years, leaving hospitals burdened financially and kin emotionally troubled.

Issue an injunction

The judiciary has now come to the rescue of people like Mary who have for many years been hounded and compelled by hospitals to clear pending bills by holding on to the bodies.

In 1998, Justice Philip Waki ordered for the release of body that had been detained by a hospital due to a Sh644,410 bill.

The judge, who ordered for the release of Mr Jackson Mwasaru’s body from Pandya Memorial Hospital in Mombasa, ruled that there was no legal basis of detaining the body.

“For it is trite law that there is no property in a dead body. It cannot be offered or held as security for payment of a debt. It cannot be auctioned if there is a default. It cannot be used to earn rental income in a cold-room,” Waki said.

He added: “For I think, with utmost respect to the hospital, that on any view it would be equally repugnant to public policy to sanction the use of dead bodies as objects in the game of commercial Ping-Pong.”

Waki pointed out that dead bodies are for interment or cremation without delay unless there is a dispute on where to dispose of the deceased.

Former Taita-Taveta County employee the late Elmina Maghema Mzaza whose body was detained over Sh 4.2 million medical and mortuary fees at Padya Hopsital mortuary, Mombasa.

But not all rulings have been in favour of the grieving families.

In a judgment delivered in November last year, Justice John Mativo ruled in favour of Nairobi Women’s Hospital, saying the courts should not be used to abet breach of a person’s obligation to pay lawfully incurred debts.

Stephen Wanjau Karanja had filed a case against the hospital, asking the court to declare unconstitutional a decision by the facility to detain the body of his son.

Mr Karanja also wanted the court to issue an injunction so that the body of Jeff Karanja who had died in June is released despite a pending Sh4.8 million bill.

A fundraiser by the family only raised a paltry Sh50,000.

“I can only emphasise that nothing would serve public interest better than ensuring that all citizens adhere to the law and in particular only approach the court when they have justiciable claims but not to use court processes to evade their legal obligations,” reads the judgment in part.

In its defence, the hospital said the deceased was rushed to their facility in a critical condition and in dire need of Intensive Care Unit services.

The family had no cash and according to court documents, and the hospital kept updating them of the ballooning bill which comprised cost of medicine, laboratory and imaging charges, doctors’ time and nursing.

“Instead of coming up with a repayment proposal, the applicant served them with a demand letter from his advocates. He also avers that the petitioner declined a proposal to transfer the patient to another hospital to reduce the costs and continued promising to pay the bill,” reads the judgment.

Mary Nyaigero desplay M-Pesa pay bill number for the assistance to her deceased son Freddy Chieff 37 who was hospitalized at The Karen Hospital Langata Road on August 4 and died on October 6 after being diagnosed with pancreas ailment. The hospital is demanding Sh18 million to release the body, an amount the family is not able to raise.

Source of strength

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also states that no one shall be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfill a contractual obligation.

But for those unable to wage their wars in courts of law, hope remains the only source of strength.

“I have been visiting KNH every day to plead with the hospital but a social worker keeps telling me that the only way to get my boy out is to pay up,” Mary says.

Peter, Mary’s nephew, died after spending a month in the Intensive Care Unit following a brutal attack in his home in Kayole, that left him with serious head injuries. He underwent surgery to ease bleeding in his head and the medics assured his aunt that he was doing well, and there was no cause for alarm. But he didn’t make it.

Speaking to the Sunday Standard, KNH Public Relations Officer Simon Ithae said KNH is a public facility and it has a policy on bill waiver for needy cases.

He explained that as a hospital that gives credit facilities to more than 100 patients a day, Mary needs to forward her case to the management.

“Why would a body be held and end up being disposed of? The family needs to prove that it is unable to pay the money. We need to vet because we cannot give undue advantages to those who can pay bills at the expense of needy cases,” he added.

As Mary struggles to prove her case, her nephew’s body will be on the concrete slabs of the morgue for yet another night.

The last pleasant memories she had of him slowly being replaced with the constant appeals for funds amongst family members and the numerous trips to the hospital’s administrative offices. But she faith -- and hopes that eventually both Peter and her will know peace once again.  

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