Hungary: Graveside Manner

graveside mannerBUDAPEST, Hungary | It is the dead of night. A couple of young people hand money to a man, their faces digitally blurred. One props a huge medical textbook on a dead body and prepares, according to the voiceover, to conduct an autopsy. Another student removes some objects wrapped in toilet paper from an empty garbage can in a university dormitory room and shows them to the camera: pieces of a human brain.

These were the most incriminating scenes, the first two shot with a hidden camera, in a news bulletin broadcast on 24 April by Norway’s largest commercial television station, TV2. In a tale reminiscent of 18th-century Edinburgh, it claimed medical students at a Hungarian university had stolen body parts and taken them home for some extracurricular study.

According to the station, the first scene captured Norwegian medical students at the University of Debrecen in Hungary in the act of paying a university employee 2,000 forints ($10) to unlock the anatomy lab for some after-hours practice before a much-feared anatomy exam. Some students, the program claimed, took organs to their rooms to be able to examine them more thoroughly.

“Competition is fierce here in Hungary. If you don’t want to fail, you have to do everything. You forget your principles if you study here,” a disguised Norwegian student said in justification of the late-night labwork and organ-snatching. Another added, “I would never do this in Norway.”

The scenes shocked the Norwegian public. TV2 news director Kjell Oevre Helland, speaking on Hungarian television, claimed that half a million viewers in a nation of 4.5 million tuned in to the show. Norwegian Health Minister Ansgar Gabrielsen issued a strongly worded statement alleging that the lab employee was selling body parts, Hungarian media said; and, according to the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag, he raised the possibility of making it harder for holders of Hungarian medical degrees to qualify in Norway.

Hungarian Health Minister Jeno Racz was not far behind his Norwegian colleague in condemning the case. He called the students “grave robbers” on a television show, expressing his hope that no student implicated in such practices would ever graduate to become a doctor. Such students would probably also look at real patients as objects, he said.

Late-night Studies

However, when the results of the university’s internal investigation were released on the evening of 1 May, the students’ story started to unravel. An official inventory going back to two years showed no missing body parts. Nor could the university confirm that the televised scenes were in reality shot in its anatomy lab or dorm rooms, although Helland insisted the footage was authentic. Nevertheless, Hungarian media cited “expert” opinion that the lab in the footage looked slightly different from the actual medical-school anatomy lab.

Then, on 2 May, the head of the association of foreign medical students, Ramzi Azbarga, alleged that the Norwegian television crew had unsuccessfully tried to persuade several students to smuggle organs out of the anatomy lab. Ramzi made these claims at a press conference announcing the results of the university’s investigation.

What seems clear is that Norwegian and Hungarian reports talking of unauthorized autopsies, organ trafficking, and even of dead bodies in the bath tub have blown the incident out of proportion. However, many students have admitted to the Hungarian media that they had conducted unauthorized studies of corpses in laboratories. Some indicated some students have tried to spirit organs out of laboratories.

A student told the daily Nepszava, “if you want to prepare for the exam seriously, you really do need more practice time – so you help yourself with ‘innovative methods.’ ” These methods include unauthorized practice in the lab or even in the pathology departments of smaller local hospitals, students said. But they denied stealing organs. Some claimed that the Norwegian television footage “looked scripted.”

Seen from these students’ perspective, the case is less a matter of disrespecting the dead than about trying to cram for a difficult exam under less than ideal circumstances. Rather than being grave robbers, some commentators view these students as over-anxious eager beavers.

As the head of the medical school’s anatomy department, Miklos Antal, admitted on state television, unlike its Western European counterparts, the University of Debrecen lacks the resources to provide students with 24-hour access to its laboratories. “Students can only use the lab from 8 to 5, and only if it is not taken by a class,” he said. It also emerged that Antal had himself claimed to have actually run into students working overtime in the lab on 9 and 14 April.

That at least some students feel nine hours of access to labs is insufficient was confirmed by a number of medical students at Debrecen as well as from other universities. As one student told the online magazine Origo, “the textbook costs 50,000 forints [$255] … and during the lab practice, there were 30 students studying two brains. No wonder some try to take [the brain] home.”

Nepszabadsag quoted an unnamed professor as saying that the medical teaching facilities at Debrecen were built for 60 students, but in order to increase financial resources, the university now accepts 200 Hungarian and over a hundred foreign students for each class.

On 29 April, days after the story broke, the Education Ministry requested a hasty review of educational, procedural, and regulatory practices from all four Hungarian medical schools. The schools are to submit written reports by 10 May.

From Fjord to Puszta

In Hungary, schools receive state support on the basis of the number of students enrolled. While education is free for Hungarian citizens, foreign students pay tuition.

Hungary is a particularly popular destination for Norwegian students. According to official Norwegian statistics, in 2002 Hungary ranked sixth among countries favored by Norwegians studying abroad. Figures from the Hungarian education ministry show that 661 Norwegian students are currently enrolled in Hungarian universities, making the lightly populated Scandinavian land the seventh largest source of foreign students in Hungary. Two hundred Norwegians study at the University of Debrecen, the Association of Norwegian Students Studying Abroad told Nepszabadsag.

The majority of Norwegian students in Hungary receive a Norwegian government scholarship; they are now afraid of losing it. Some sent an unsigned letter tipping off university staff about the identities of the students seen in the scandalous footage. The guiltless majority of students, however, need not worry about being punished for the crimes of a tiny minority, said Norwegian Deputy Health Minister Jan Otto Risebrobakken. He added that officials “will have a talk” with the students once they return home. Oslo will decide later whether to impose extra conditions on graduates of Hungarian medical schools seeking to have their degrees accepted in Norway.

It is this that seems to worry Geza Gyenes, chief secretary of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, who believes the take-home brain affair could become an excuse for Norway not to honor an agreement that would enable Hungarian doctors to work in Norway. Norway has a shortage of health professionals. Gyenes told Nepszabadsag that so far no Norwegian health institution has made an effort to recruit Hungarian doctors. However, Risebrobakken said, the Debrecen scandal “will have no effect whatsoever” on the health agreement.

Although the university’s investigation failed to turn up missing body parts, police continue to study the case and have initiated procedures against the university employee thought to have allowed students into the lab after hours. He had already been given an oral and then a written warning from the university.

The head of anatomy at the University of Debrecen, Miklos Antal, was suspended for the duration of the university’s probe and reinstated on 2 May – the same day he received an award from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The professor expressed his bitterness that after “30 years of fair-and-square work” the university had thrown out the presumption of innocence and suspended him without proof of his guilt.

The office of the Civil Rights Commissioner will also start an investigation into possible rights violations. Just because a person donates his or her body to scientific research and education, “we cannot assume that he or she would consent to be kept … in a dorm room,” said deputy commissioner Albert Takacs.




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