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.
At 19, her life has been fractured by 11 medical procedures. She has spent more than a year in total in the orthopaedics ward at Marie Curie Hospital. ”It’s a dreadful place. Just like in 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. She was homeschooled through high school and passed her baccalaureate exam, but 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 go to just 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, university deputy dean, 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 the “spirituality” section in the media. He’s being hailed as a prodigy, one who hasn’t been tempted to move abroad and make big money but stayed in Romania to save us.
Georghe Brunei. Source: Regina Maria Hospital website
„He wanted to invent something…”
Mutilated and mangled are two words which Emilia Iliescu, Amira’s mother, uses very often. “Her bones were mangled.”
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.
girl’s pelvis in two and put in a ceramic implant.,
The implant “doesn’t exist in orthopaedics books”, a shocked orthopaedist from a major 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 several months of messages and phone calls. He speaks calmly and explains the situation to me as if I were a pupil who doesn’t understand what’s being taught in class.
“Write this: It was an experiment!”
Biovitroceramic (BVC) is a ceramic and glass compound frequently used by dentists. In orthopedics, it can be used to fill up a hole in a bone. But Amira had no hole in her hip that needed filling.
Professor Doctor Burnei told us in a phone interview: “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, in 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 this, I conducted studies on animals. These were even 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, and that it bonds. This ceramic made by engineer Negreanu wouldn’t be absorbed.”
Tiberiu Popescu Negreanu was the engineer Burnei sent Emilia to 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 warnings. They were simply removed from the bag, sterilised and placed inside patients, according to sources who used to work at the hospital.
Amira’s patient sheet has no label with the implant ID code, and no consent paper for the 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 before in a similar case.
“It’s as if I was making aspirin at home, in the kitchen sink, and then sold it to people”, says a source close to the case. “Any product must be part of a batch that has an ID code. It’s legal to use BVC, but not the uncertified type. The products made by Negreanu in his backyard 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, they felt like train wrecks. That’s because BVC doesn’t develop progressively with the coxal bone. These were tragic cases.”
“It’s as if I dream one night that if I pump shit into a patient and believe he gets better, I’d be entitled to do this. This is jail worthy!” exclaims another doctor who worked with Burnei and has known him for years.
“It all started with a simple hip dislocation which could have been treated like everywhere else in the world, following standardised techniques with great 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 with his practices. 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, his work is visible.”
“Most blameful is that he operated on her so many times, that he didn’t stop in time to say Ok, this is it, this is as far as my competence can take me. I don’t know what to do next. He operated on her and carried on saying that it was alright, even though it wasn’t. It’s unacceptable!” I am told by a third doctor I’ve talked with.
He worked in hospitals abroad for a while, but came back to Romania and is now working for a private hospital. I ask him whether he believes there’s a chance of any orthopaedist speaking out against Burnei. “Not a chance. They’re all scared!”
“You don’t want to get on Burnei’s bad side”
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 in this state.”
Gheorghe Burnei has accumulated enough 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 he’s so powerful that he can shut down their Facebook accounts where they anonymously posted a video of him cursing at a female junior doctor. Most of them simply don’t want to be part of this.
There’s an unwritten pact of nonaggression between doctors: you don’t speak out against a fellow doctor, even if you know their decisions endanger patients’ lives.
But the parents of the children who were operated on by Doctor 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, connected by cartilaginous joints. If one piece breaks or if it no longer fits with the one next to it, we stop being able to do certain things. Sometimes we break a hand and we can no longer give a hug; other times we fracture a leg and we can no longer walk. That’s what orthopedic surgery is for, to put the puzzle pieces back together.
Amira’s and Emilia’s lives were a puzzle of traumas. Each surgery brought upon them more pain, debt, horror and fear.
When Amira, by then two and a half years old, had her second surgery, Burnei operated on her other leg for no reason. “He told us she had hip dysplasia there too. I found out, seventeen years later, that this child never had hip dysplasia and she underwent surgery for nothing. Another doctor told me: Ma’am, why was this kid operated on her good leg? Well, he told me she has hip dysplasia and that if we don’t operate, she’ll get a limp just like with the left one. So we swallowed that too.” 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 the third surgery, Amira could no longer walk. “He cut even more out of her pelvis, he cut some of her femur and made a caricature of it. After two and a half months of being in a cast and with 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 there.”
After each surgery, the mother would get restless, but Doctor Burnei would look at the X-rays and say with the greatest confidence: “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 one time he broke the news that he has to mount a fixator.
The external fixator is a device invented by the Soviets: it’s made up of rods (some sort of long nails), a lengthening bar and metal or carbon circular clamps which are directly mounted on the bone, keeping it still. It’s used to lengthen limbs. The two pieces of bone are pulled apart creating a space that will fill in with new bone. 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 euros. “I told him that I’m poor and I don’t have that kind of money, but I’ll manage to get it somehow. I thought I’ll go begging, anything to get 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 it, Burnei sent them to meet with the company that sells fixators.
The deal took place in a car, with the owner and the company 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, who brings in medical utensils from Turkey. Several sources from Marie Curie say Burnei holds a close interest in Argonmed and that the company’s prices are above those of other companies
”What is Doctor Burnei’s commission for each device sold?” I 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.”
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 was the norm for most of the over twenty parents I spoke to. Almost all of them reside outside Bucharest, have a modest income and made desperate efforts to raise the money needed 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 on 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 kept clean as a whistle. With fourteen holes, with enormous risk, because the rods were thick. As if I’d say to you now: if I hammer some iron bars in your leg, will you not you get an infection?”
She recalls how the Argonmed representative walked into the intensive care unit and, even though Amira hadn’t woken up from the anaesthetic, they removed the blanket from her and took a snapshot of the fixator ”in order to justify what was paid for.”
It was only then that Emilia saw 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, dressings, and 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 other ladies’ homes, and in the evening she would come home to dress her child’s wounds.
Bone infection, amputated leg, they were all a whirlwind in her head as she entered the house, disinfected herself with alcohol, put on sterile gloves and her clean, ironed pajamas and sat next to Amira, washing her, cleansing her. „Night after night, I would dream there are maggots on that 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 during those ten months she’s had the fixator, I slept under the child’s bed, and the nurse would trample on my hand at six in the morning, so that I get up and bribe her”, Emilia recalls.
“’If she gets an infection, I’ll just go 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 had been 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 highschool 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 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, fruit-picking in Germany,to raise the money needed to pay off the debt.
Amira got 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 doesn’t become a burden to her friends.
She started keeping a blog with stories about a vampire who lives 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 makeup of a highschool 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 someone else is feeling, go through the same things…”
— “Who do you want toattach this device to?”
— “Who? 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 I feel that I can’t do this, because I lack the motivation to do anything”, says Amira.
The second opinion
In the fall of 2014, 16 years after the nightmare started, Emilia dared to do something that every patient has the right to do she asked for a second opinion.
“Someone advised us to go to this professor, an orthopaedist for adults. 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 the following day went to an orthopaedist from the Central Military Hospital, who came with the same grim news: „Basically, the fixator capped it all off. He didn’t give this child one chance, one single chance!”
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 pants off!”
Another doctor 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, no one 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 when Emilia arrived at the Rizzoli clinic in Italy, with the help of a foundation, and the doctor 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 – 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] was authorized 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 with Emilia, recorded the conversation on her phone.
Burnei also said:“She had that sprain not because of me. I treated it the best I could and others couldn’t. I did everything 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 euros 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 evenings, 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 time she spent in the hospital, others she found on Facebook or on forums. She wrote to them, asking them if their children were alright. None of them were.
She tried to help 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 house 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 when 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 do any more crimes to children.”
She still fails to comprehend how this was possible. How come such a man is still allowed to operate. How come all other doctors in Romania are silent.
Parents feel like they’ve been betrayed by the medical system, by the government and by the 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 Romanian geniuses.
It took us a year to fact-check all the information and persuade 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 under 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 Health declared: “We have two possibilities: either 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 Romanian College of Physicianssaid doctor Burnei was a pioneer in medicine.
- Burnei admitted he took bribes from the parents of children he operated on.
- 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 Regina Maria private clinic, where Burnei sent patients for paid consultations, removed the doctor from their website and asked us to delete any reference to them in our articles.
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.