The most famous orthopaedist in Romania
experimented with an uncertified implant
on a little girl born with a limp.
Eleven surgical procedures later,
the little girl, now a young lady,
can barely stand up from her bed.
Amira’s life is the extension of an experiment.
Her nineteen years of age have been fractured by eleven medical interventions. The number of days she has spent inside the orthopaedics ward of the Marie Curie Hospital amounts to more than a year. ”It’s a dreadful place. Just like the horror movies, only worse, ’cause I like horror movies…”
Now she’s bedridden in a little one bedroom house in Sălaj, a poor neighbourhood in Bucharest, Romania’s capital city. She was homeschooled all the way through high school. She managed to pass the baccalaureate exam, but she doesn’t know what use to make of it. She spends her days in bed. She hardly ever gets out of the house and only for short distances, using crutches. Her left foot has become something of a foreign limb which stopped listening to her commands after so many surgeries, and her spine became distorted into a severe scoliosis.
It all began with a hip dislocation.
„The best doctor in Romania”
When Amira was one year old, her mother learned that the little girl’s leg bone wasn’t properly fastened to her hip.
Still, to make sure that it was done right, Amira’s mother didn’t just go to any doctor. She knew someone who knew a surgeon from Marie Curie “who told us this:
“We found a doctor and he’s the best there is in Romania”.
“The best doctor in Romania” was Gheorghe Burnei, inventor and medical pioneer, deputy dean at a university, chairman of malpractice committees, TV and and newspapers medical pundit turned hero, “a saint walking the Earth“.
Stories about the doctor are often published under “Spirituality”. He’s being hailed as one of the prodigies who refused big offers from abroad in order to stay in Romania and save us.
Photo from the website ofRegina Maria Hospital.
„He wanted to invent something…”
Hacked, mangled are two words that Emilia Iliescu, Amira’s mother, very often makes use of. “Her bones were hacked.”
The doctor didn’t go ahead with the recommended surgery, but instead opted for an innovation: he cracked the girl’s pelvis in two and put in a ceramic implant.
The implant “does not exist in orthopaedics books”, one shocked orthopaedist from a big hospital in Bucharest tells me. He’s one of the go-to doctors for patients who got away from Burnei. He agreed to see me in his office only after a good number of months of messages and phone calls. He speaks calmly and explains the situation to me as if I were a school child prone to not understanding what’s being taught in class.
“Write this: It was an experiment!”
Biovitroceramic (BVC) is a ceramic and glass compound which is frequently used by dentists. In orthopaedics, it can fill up a hole in a bone. But Amira had no hole that needed filling in her hip.
Mr. Burnei told us in an interview over the phone: “This BVC implant is authorized by the Ministry of Public Health, following experiments conducted by Professor Antonescu.”
But Professor Dinu Antonescu tells us a different story during another phone interview: “I have never used biovitroceramic in hip dislocations. I only used it for tumors, to fill up remaining bone cavities. Prior to doing so, I conducted studies on animals. They were published.
“You’re not allowed to try it on a patient until you’ve tried it on animals. You have to make sure that it’s not toxic, that it bonds. This ceramic done by engineer Negreanu wouldn’t be absorbed.”
Tiberiu Popescu Negreanu was the engineer to whom Burnei sent Emilia in order to purchase the implant. He would send the ceramic components to the hospital in a bag, with no batch number or manufacturing serial number, no labels or contraindication sheet. According to sources who used to work at the hospital, they were simply removed from the bag, sterilised and placed inside patients.
Amira’s consultation sheet has no label with the implant’s ID data, nor does it have any consent paper for this procedure. Her parents say they weren’t informed that their one year-old girl was to receive an implant that no other doctor had ever used in a similar case.
“It’s as though I was making aspirin at home, in the kitchen sink, and selling it to people”, says a source who is close to the case. “Any product must be part of a batch that has an ID code. It is legal to use BVC, but not the uncertified type. The products made by Negreanu in his back yard were not certified. Between 2002 and 2004 there have been several cases of BVC surgeries conducted by Burnei. Most of them were disastrous“, sources inside the hospital say.
Professor Mihai Jianu, who opened the first bone bank in Romania, told us he has never used BVC in hip dislocations: “I know it’s been used before, but those children went abroad afterwards feeling like train wrecks. That’s due to the fact that BVC doesn’t develop progressively with the coxal bone and there were a few tragedies.”
It’s as if I dream one night that, if I pump shit into a patient believing he’ll get better, I’d be entitled to do so. This is jail-worthy!””, exclaims another medic, who’s worked with Burnei and has known him for years.
“It all started with a simple hip dislocation, which could have been treated, as it is all over the world, following bona fide, well-known techniques with excellent track records. I don’t know what he was thinking; ”
The experiment performed on Amira wasn’t an exception.
In a year-long journalistic endeavor, we learned that Dr. Burnei made the same choice many times, opting to perform medical innovations instead of safe surgeries, which left children dead and countless lives destroyed.
Doctor Burnei sees no problem in his practice. We asked him whether he’s ever had a case of malpractice throughout his career. He said “No. There wasn’t, because generally, when… these things are visible. I mean, when a surgeon operates, the work is visible”.
“Most blameworthy is the fact that he operated on her so many times, that he didn’t stop in time and say Ok, that’s it, this is how far my competence can take me. I don’t know how to proceed any further. He kept on operating on her and carried on saying it’s alright, even though it wasn’t. It’s unacceptable!”, I am told by the third doctor I’ve consulted with.
He worked for a while in hospitals abroad, came back to Romania and he’s now working for a private hospital. I ask him whether he believes I have a chance of any orthopaedist speaking out in public against Burnei. “Not a chance. They’re all scared!”
“You don’t want to get on Burnei’s bad side”
The other doctors know what’s going on with Burnei’s experiments, but they’re afraid to talk.
“If you want to cause me harm, mention my name,” a doctor warned Emilia after having said to her: “In my whole life as an orthopaedist, I’ve yet to see another child brought in looking like this.”
Gheorghe Burnei has accumulated enough job titles to allow him full control over the field of pediatric orthopaedics:
He’s the manager of the orthopaedics clinic at Marie Curie Hospital, founder and honorary chairman of the Romanian Association of Traumatologists and Pediatric Orthopaedists, Professor and Deputy Dean at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy, for a few years chairman of the Ministry of Public Health’s Advisory Committee on Pediatric Orthopaedics as well as chairman of the Malpractice Committee on Pediatric Orthopaedics within the Medical Board.
“You don’t want to get on Burnei’s bad side if you want to keep your license,” another doctor tells me. “You wouldn’t want to be in his pocket, ever.”
Some are afraid of his fits of rage, others of his intimidating phone calls, while others are convinced that his power goes to the point in which he can shut down the Facebook account on which they anonymously posted a video of him cursing at a young female doctor. Most of them simply don’t want in on this.
There’s this unwritten pact of non-aggression between doctors: you don’t speak out in public against a fellow doctor, even if you know their decisions endanger patients’ lives.
But the parents of the children who were operated on and treated by Dr. Burnei are no longer silent. They don’t want any other children to go through what their children went through.
A puzzle of traumas
Our bodies are fragile puzzles, with pieces made of bone, interconnected by the cartilage of joints. If one piece breaks or no longer fits with the one next to it, we stop being able to do certain things. Sometimes we’ll break a hand and we can no longer give a hug; other times we’ll fracture a leg, rendering us unable to walk. For all these accidents we have orthopaedics, which puts the puzzle pieces back together.
Amira’s and Emilia’s lives were a puzzle of traumas. Each surgery brought upon them additional pain, debt, months in hospital, horror and fear.
When Amira, by then two and a half years old, had her second surgery, Burnei operated her other leg for no reason. . “He told us she had dysplasia there as well. I found out, seventeen years later, that this child never had any dysplasia and she was operated for nothing. Another doctor told me: Ma’am, why was this kid operated on her good foot?’ Well, he told me she has dysplasia and that, if we don’t operate, she’ll get a limp just like with the left one. So we swallowed that as well.” A doctor from the hospital told us: “He goes into the operating room and decides on the spot – let’s cut a little bit over here, let’s move this over there. He’s nuts!”.
After her third surgery, Amira could no longer walk. “He cut even more out of her pelvis, he cut some of her femur, and he made a caricature of it. After two and a half months of being in a cast and having a rod between her legs, she was in horrible pain,” Emilia tells us. She had to carry her everywhere. “Even at school, I’d sit her down at her desk and pick her up from it.”
The mother was restless after every surgery, but Dr. Burnei would look at the X-rays and say with the utmost self-certainty: “It’s veeery good.” If a saint walking the Earth says it’s very good, how can you argue with that?
“But do you have the money for a fixator?”
“It’s veeery good,” the doctor would go on muttering. But at a given time, he broke the news that he’ll have to mount a fixator.
The external fixator is an apparatus invented by the Soviets: it’s made up of rods (a sort of long nails), a lengthening bar and either metal or carbon circular clamps, which are mounted straight onto the bone, keeping it still. Its main use is the lengthening of limbs. The two pieces of bone are spread apart from one another, and the bone scrambles to make up for the resulting gap. It looks like something out of Robocop’s wardrobe.
“But do you have the money for a fixator?” Burnei asked the mother. He didn’t tell her that the device can be acquired by the hospital, but instead he had her raise 5000€. “I told him that I’m a poor person and I don’t have that kind of money, but I’ll manage to produce it somehow. I was thinking I’ll go begging, anything that’ll get me the money so she can get well.”
It took them two years to raise this money – they took loans from wherever they could. Once they had the money, Burnei sent them to meet up with the company that sells fixators.
The deal took place in a car, with the owner and the company’s representative, “in a backstreet, so people wouldn’t see us”, Emilia’s husband Bubu recalls.
The company is Argonmed, and its owner is Murat Gonencer, a citizen who brings in medical utensils from Turkey. Several sources from Marie Curie say Burnei holds a close interest in Argonmed and that prices are above those of other companies.
”What is Dr. Burnei’s commission for each device sold?” I went ahead and asked Mr. Murat straight-up over the phone.
”I’m offended, I don’t talk like this. We’re a company, and if a patient comes to us, we serve at them”“, he replied and ended the conversation with ”If you publish something like this, I’ll sue you.”
The same story with Amira’s first implant – Burnei sent her grandmother to buy it from Tiberiu Popescu Negreanu (who has since passed away). For X-rays he would send them to Monza, a private facility, even though children are entitled to free check-ups.
This scenario has been the norm for most of the twenty-something parents I spoke to. Almost all of them reside in areas other than Bucharest, have a modest income and have made desperate efforts to raise the money necessary for the devices and surgeries that crippled their children.
”If she gets an infection, I’ll go and hang myself!”
The night before the surgery, Emilia went to ask the doctor how long the surgery would take and how the recovery would look like , so that she could notify her daughter’s school. ”He said nothing to me. He said to me this: You just take care she’s well fed, yes, and he wrote me a piece of paper, I’ll show it to you, “Meat, eggs, fish, salmon, salads, vegetables, milk, she’ll get everything from her meals.”
The following day, she learned that Amira had fourteen gaping holes in her leg: ”We met him in the elevator, he was doing the rounds. He stopped us when he got out of the elevator, he untucked her, because they were bringing her in on a bed, and told us about the risk of infection. He said: We did our best, now it’s all up to you. Be extremely careful, she must be clean as a whistle. With fourteen holes, with enormous risk, because the rods were thick. As if to say, if I hammer some irons in your leg, won’t you get infected?”
She recalls how the representative from Argonmed walked into the intensive care unit and, even though Amira still hadn’t woken up from the anaesthetic, she removed the blanket that was on her and took a snapshot of the fixator ”in order to justify what was paid for.”
It was only then that Emilia saw that the fixator stretched from the girl’s pelvis all the way down, below the knee: ”I thought I was gonna’ drop right there on the ground, you know? I had no idea. He told me the fixator only goes on the femur”.
During the first few days of dressing the holes in her daughter’s bone, her hands were shaking. ”I was reading about staphylococci, how it is with dressings, what I should do. I was thinking that I shouldn’t speak while dressing the wounds, because my mouth is full of germs. I went nuts, I wouldn’t allow any visitors inside. I even washed the walls with bleach. Everything was boiled and ironed.”
Emilia would leave in the morning to do housekeeping in the homes of the ladies she worked for, and in the evening she would come home to dress her child’s wounds.
Bone infection, amputated leg, all of these were a whirlwind in her head as she would enter the house, disinfect herself with alcohol, put on sterile gloves and her clean, ironed pajamas and sit next to Amira, washing her, cleansing her. „Night after night, I would dream that there are maggots on the child’s device! Basically, that’s the state I was in! Ten months, day in, day out, I dressed her wounds.”
”Everytime I slept in the hospital in those ten months when she had the fixator, I would sleep under the child’s bed, and the nurse trampled on my hand at six in the morning, so that I would get up and bribe her”, Emilia recalls.
“’If she gets an infection, I’ll just go and hang myself!, I used to think. I don’t want to live anymore, knowing that I hurt my child.”
”She was all carved up, the bed was full of blood. As much of a fighter as I was for all those months, I nearly gave in. I almost fell on the floor, literally.“
”For me, life is over.”
Emilia is a forty-something woman, with big, brown eyes. She shows me a photo of herself with a former high school colleague and tells me out of the blue:
”We used to be just like you, you know? We were prouder back then, we were the cutest, we were larger than life. And, oh, the dreams that we had… We were hoping for a different future, not this mockery. I go to houses and clean up for people. So that I have something to give to this child. Or, better said, to pay off the debt that came along with her crippling.”
Amira’s father left his family after the third surgery. ”He had had enough of all those hospitals”. A while after her husband abandoned them, Emilia met Bubu, a champion of kindness who balances out her volcanic temper. This summer, he went abroad, to Germany, in the apple and strawberry-picking business, so that he would raise the money needed to pay off the debt.
Amira became used to the thought that her future has ceased to exist. Time is dripping away quietly, slipping on the whiskers of the cat that keeps her company. She’s keeping as low a profile as possible, so that she won’t be a burden for her friends.
She started keeping a blog with stories about a vampire who lived in a mansion near a cemetery. She laughs and tells me that she likes cemeteries; she finds them comforting. In any case, she’d prefer one over a hospital, ”at least people are dead there.”
The first time I paid her a visit in her little two-room house in the Rahova district , I found a little girl in her bed, all tucked in, with her pupils enlarged by coloured contact lenses and sporting the make-up of a high school girl from a teenage anime. She’s found her refuge in Japanese culture: first in music, and then in anime, cosplay and gyaru.
— “If there were a thing, a device that could make a person feel whatever another person is feeling, go through the same things…”
— “Whom would you attach this device to?”
— “To whom? Burnei. Except he should feel a thousand times worse. Feel the pain of all the children…”
Amira has had enough of surgeries. She says she hopes the Apocalypse comes before she needs a prosthesis. She’s afraid of two things: to go through surgery again and Emilia dying. And Bubu’s death too.
“I didn’t use to be afraid that my parents would die. I wasn’t afraid of things. I just wanted to go out with my friends. Despite my mother saying do you ever think of me? Of course I do, it’s just that I don’t say it.” She doesn’t know why she’s so afraid, but fear is there, nestled in Amira’s bed, under her pillow. Fear and loneliness.
Dreams? “There are people who see something when they think about their future… Me… I couldn’t stay here by myself. I used to have dreams too. I wanted to be a gyaru model in Japan, but now it seems to me that I can’t do this, because I lack the motivation to do anything,” says Amira.
The second opinion
In the fall of 2014, sixteen years after the nightmare commenced, Emilia dared to do something that we have a law for and is listed under patients’ rights: she asked for a second opinion.
“Someone advised us to go to this professor, an adults’ orthopaedist. I was actually standing there on the hallway, Just wait, I say, to get a load of the look on his face when he marvels at Burnei’s mishaps.” But no, instead he says Ma’am, there’s nothing more I can do for you. You didn’t know where to go! ’ What do you mean, I didn’t know? Isn’t he hailed on TV as the best in the country, the best in Europe?”
„This guy is either crazy or he has a beef with poor Burnei”, Emilia thought and went the following day to an orthopaedist from the Central Military Hospital, who came with the same grim news: „Basically, the fixator capped it. He didn’t leave one chance, one single chance for this kiddo!”
The third, fourth and fifth opinions all confirmed the scenario: the first surgery had been an experiment, the second, useless, and the rest had been negligent attempts to mend the disaster.
„How on Earth could you take her to Burnei?”, the head of a medical unit from another major hospital in Bucharest asked her. „Whenever we see this guy we laugh our spleens off!”
Another one met them in his office, consulted Amira and told them: “We’re aware of the Burnei technique. Which is to say, even though you know, none of you is doing anything, because you don’t care about the population of your country,” Emilia says with a sigh. ”If this were your child, you probably would’ve done something. But you don’t care! That’s how it is.”
The last drop of magic from saint Burnei evaporated upon Emilia’s arrival at the Rizzoli clinic in Italy, with the help of a foundation, and the medic there confirmed: ”He said we were experimented on.”
Emilia didn’t catch her breath until she went to Burnei to confront him and tell him that she knows he crippled her child. She barged into his office: ”I’m gonna’ tell you the truth to your face, so that I can move on… And not kill myself, throw myself in front of a car.” She told him she went to eleven doctors and they all confirmed it for her – unsuccessful surgeries, uncertified implant, countless subsequent traumas.
Burnei was defensive: ”That surgery was a…a…a… surgery, it was a necrosis… after the surgery, there was a necrosis (…). That substance (biovitroceramic, e.n.) was authorised by the Ministry of Health and was made at the Foișor hospital by Professor Antonescu. There wasn’t any sort of… not one has ever had adverse reactions, they were put in with papers and documents.” Amira, who came along with Emilia, recorded the conversation on her phone.
Burnei also said that “She had that sprain not because of me. I treated it as I could and others couldn’t. I did all I had to do to make it right.” He kept repeating ”I did everything that was humanly possible. That’s as much as I could do for her.”
He didn’t recall having put the fixator on her and denied urging Emilia to raise the 5000€ and buy the fixator from Argonmed: ”You told me to give you his contact, you said you want him to do I don’t know what, to help you… What have I got to do with him?” When Emilia told him ”I can’t go on living anymore, I wanted to kill myself countless times. Do you know what my child writes on Facebook? That she wants to die, that she’s useless!”, Burnei replied that ”She’s better now. She can stand, she can walk.”
When Emilia called him to notify him that she’d found a lawyer, he told her: ”May God give you what you wish for and by the measure of your soul, and whatever you wish upon me, may He cast it upon yourself.“
“So that he doesn’t go on performing crimes on children.”
In the evening, when she gets home from work, Emilia does research to find parents in her situation, looking for them in the comments sections of articles on Burnei. Some she already knew from the months of hospital stay, others she has found on Facebook or on forums. She wrote to them, asking them whether their children were alright. None of them were.
She tried helping them all. She urged them to come to Bucharest and ask for second opinions from other doctors, gave them advice and cheered them up; she offered her place for accommodation, even if that meant she had to sleep on the floor.
She saw her story reflected in all of them: people devoid of means, with infinite trust in the Professor, nice people, with the most pious of demeanors upon entering his office; people who can’t fathom the fact that there are, in this world, doctors who would harm little children. People who are unaware that they have rights.
At the end of this summer, Emilia found a lawyer who would represent her and the other parents in court, pro bono. He doesn’t want any money. He just wants to stop Burnei. ”So that he doesn’t go on performing crimes on children.”
She still fails to comprehend how this was possible. How come such a man is still allowed to operate. How come all of the other doctors in Romania are silent.
Parents feel like they’ve been betrayed by the medical system, by the government and by our whole society. So they got organized and they’re ready to stand up for themselves. They want to uncover the experiment.
That’s how they got to us.
We’re not the first journalists they went to with the story, but others simply deemed it too far-fetched to deserve attention. And the audience would rather read beautiful stories about some good ol’ Romanian geniuses.
It took us a year to check on the pieces of information and to persuade the sources within the system to talk. Many of them want to change things, but no one is willing to put their careers on the line until they see solidarity.
During the next few days, we’ll be reconstructing how such a calamity was possible right under everyone’s noses.
It will be a chance for us to reflect on just how many complicity chains we’re all individually part of and thus what tragedies, bigger or lesser, we allow to happen.
- The doctor was detained for 24 hours, then put in house arrest.
- The prosecutors searched his office and found bones of children in his refrigerator, cow bone fragments and tank filters he used for implants.
- The Minister of Healthdeclared: “We have two possibilities: either mister Prof. Dr. Burnei has only a corruption problem (which he, of course, needs to clarify). Either we have a serious systemic problem, of functioning and TRUST IN KEY INSTITUTIONS.”
- The President of the General Medical Council said doctor Burnei was a pioneer in medicine.
- Burnei admitted he took bribes from the parents of children he operated.
- from the Ministry of Health started an investigation at the Marie Curie Hospital
- Marie Curie suspended doctor Burnei from his position as chief of the Orthopedics Department
- Burnei was also suspended from the Faculty of Medicine, where he was Deputy Dean.
- The son of engineer Tiberiu Popescu-Negreanu, who manufactured the implant, sent us a right of reply in which he claims that the biovitroceramics material PAW1 was authorized. We asked him if he has a certificate proving the material can be used in congenital hip dislocation, Amira’s disease. He answered: “The undersigned doesn’t have theoretical or practical knowledge of medicine”.
- The private clinic Regina Maria, where Burnei sent patients for paid consultations, removed the doctor from their webpage and asked us the delete the investigation’s reference to them.
Events are still unfolding
Photo: George Popescu (at Amira’s house), Vlad Petri (at the hospital).
Editors: Vlad Ursulean, Ștefan Mako.
Translation: Victor Bitiușcă
Proofreading: Șerban Anghene
Thanks to: RISE Project, Cătălin Tolontan.
Next up, part II.