BUCHAREST — A Romanian doctor has been arrested on charges of illegally harvesting hundreds of pacemakers and defibrillators from corpses and implanting them into patients over a seven-year-period — sometimes when they didn’t even need them — for material gain.
Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation on February 17 into Dan Tesloianu, a 52-year-old cardiologist from St. Spiridon Hospital in the northeastern city of Iasi, alleging he worked in conjunction with four other medics who helped him find sick patients and then remove cardiac implants after they died. They passed the pacemakers and other devices off as new and illegally pocketed money from patients, prosecutors said.
They are being investigated in 238 cases between 2017 and August 2022.
The case has shocked Romania, a country that is well used to medical scandals and endemic corruption in an underfunded health-care system that is plagued by inefficiencies and politicized management. Romania spends the second lowest on health in the EU after Bulgaria.
One of Romania’s top doctors expressed shock over the latest health-care furor.
“I’ve been practicing medicine for 30 years and this is beyond belief,”said Dan Coriu, the president of Romania’s Medical College.
Lucky To Be Alive?
Romanian law specifically outlaws the reuse of medical devices from dead people. In the case of Dan Tesloianu, organized crime prosecutors say the dead people were not even consulted before they died — nor their families — about removing the devices postmortem.
Tesloianu made no comment in court on the allegations, but his lawyer insisted: “he saved lives.”
Not all his patients agree.
A Romanian woman identified as Ana G, 57, is just one of thousands of patients treated by the cardiologist over the past 20 years, RFE/RL’s Romanian Service reported.
In May 2021, she had a medical device implanted in her heart which she said almost killed her.
“The procedure was difficult, and complications arose straight away which took me to the brink of death,” she said.
“It’s a miracle from God that I am alive. The device wasn’t correctly implanted and didn’t work for a single moment to synchronize my heart. If I’m being cynical now, I wonder whether the device was from a dead person.”
Hundreds Of Illegal Implants?
Tesloianu has implanted 4,000 pacemakers and other devices during his career, his lawyers say.
Prosecutors say that since at least 2017 some of the defibrillators and pacemakers used by Tesloianu and his colleagues were taken from corpses, which is illegal in Romania.
Romania’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, which is investigating the case, said he committed 238 “abuses of office” by implanting cardiac devices taken from dead people since 2017.
Romanian prosecutors said in a statement that “Dan Tesloianu acted ‘with intention’ … and ignored the risk of provoking grave medical problems or even death to patients.”
There was no official word on whether any of his patients had died because of his alleged illegal surgical procedures, although Adevarul, an online news site, reported that at least two people had died.
Prosecutors said the suspect used a ring of medics who supplied the pacemakers and other devices “including those harvested from corpses” in violation of all rules and regulations.
Among the four other medics suspected of being part of his ring is Eduard Belu, a military doctor in the city of Brasov who prosecutors said was a close associate of Tesloianu.
The devices had no guarantee from the Health Ministry as would be required and no documents showing that they had been sterilized prior to implantation.
Prosecutors say that “a large number” of the surgical interventions weren’t even necessary and the doctor made “fictitious diagnoses” including by prescribing medicine that would cause ‘specific symptoms,” such as making a patient’s heart beat slower to convince them they needed a pacemaker.
Tesloianu appeared before court in Bucharest last week and the judge ordered him detained for 30 days. His lawyers have appealed.
Tesloianu’s lawyer, Marius Todeanca, defended his client in court, claiming he had harvested devices from dead people “to save lives,” RFE/RL reported.
“Nobody says that lives haven’t been saved. He’s had a 21-year career and carried out 4,000 procedures,” he said, claiming the pacemakers had been sold cheaply.
“According to international treaties, you can use devices from dead people. Let’s ask another question: Is it legal to die if there aren’t available funds for such devices?” Todeanca said.
According to Romanian law, a pacemaker or stimulator is paid for by the public health insurer, the National Health House, although sometimes patients end up paying the cost up front before being reimbursed later.
The Romanian Health Ministry said the law “explicitly forbids” the reuse of devices and disposable materials such as implantable devices.
In July last year, the International Trade Administration said health care in Romania cost $16.7 billion, or $872.3 per person and 5.9 percent of its gross domestic product in 2021, one of the EU’s lowest rates of spending per capita.
It said government health-care spending, which made up 78.5 percent of this total, is greater than in other Eastern European countries like Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine, but slightly lower than in countries like Croatia.
Despite attempts to promote primary care, the amount of health spending dedicated to primary and ambulatory care (18.6 percent) is the second lowest in the EU behind Bulgaria.
Prosecutors carried out searches at St. Spiridon Hospital in Iasi last week and noted that it was clearly written on the packaging of unused medical devices used that they were “single-use and should not be reused or sterilized,” the Health Ministry said.
Romanians Call For Justice
Although Romanians have long been underwhelmed by the country’s health-care system, news of the latest scandal shocked many.
Thousands of Romanians have taken to social media to demand that the implicated doctors be “severely punished” if found guilty.
Prosecutors said Tesloianu along with Belu knew of patients who already had heart devices implanted. Once these patients died, the two arranged to have the device removed and implanted it in a needy patient with the help of the others doctors implicated in the case.
They charged patients between 2,000 and 3,000 euros for a device taken from a dead person— the price of a new one.
Moreover, prosecutors say that not all of the patients needed pacemakers. The medics are alleged to have prescribed medicine to make their hearts beat slower, convincing them that they needed treatment.
Some of the patients suffered infections and needed to be re-admitted to hospital, prosecutors said.
One unnamed patient who was operated on in 2013 by Tesloianu told Antena 1, a Romanian TV station, that her pacemaker was shoddy and “kept coming loose.”
She said she never saw documents proving the device was new. She said Tesloianu insisted on operating on her seven times. “Now, I know why,” she said.
Another patient complained that the “device never functioned from the start and there were complications. Instead of helping me, it destroyed my life.”
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Romanian Service