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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 10:43 GMT
Poland's macabre scandal
Funeral homes and ambulance crews worked together
The BBC's Nicholas Walton went to Polish city of Lodz to meet some of the people troubled by evidence of a racket run by ambulance drivers and funeral homes.

Barbara Cyniak used to run her business, making and mending furs, with her husband, Andrzej.

The doctor refused to take my husband's body away

Barbara Cyniak
But on 7 January this year, Andrzej felt faint and collapsed. A doctor who lived in their building revived him, and soon an ambulance crew arrived.

Andrzej was taken inside the ambulance, but it didn't drive off. The crew didn't allow anybody else inside the vehicle, and one hour later told Barbara that her husband was dead.

"The doctor said a funeral firm would come to take care of his burial," says Barbara. "I said thank you, but one of my husband's colleagues could help me to organise the funeral. Then the doctor refused to take my husband's body away."

Barbara Cyniak's story is part of a growing amount of evidence suggesting that some ambulance crews in Lodz had a macabre relationship with some of the city's funeral homes.

In one case a doctor had driven someone who was seriously ill but still alive straight to a funeral home

The scandal was brought to light when an investigation by three journalists, working for Radio Lodz and Poland's leading daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, confirmed rumours which had been circulating for several years.

In one case a doctor had driven someone who was seriously ill but still alive straight to a funeral home.

Fighting for business

At the centre of the allegations is the extremely competitive funeral business, which was opened up to private firms after the fall of communism.

One of those to take advantage of the liberalisation was Witold Skrzydlewski, who branched out from his family flower shop business into funeral homes in 1991.

He now runs a chain of them across the city, employing 200 people, with purpose-built chapels and immaculate modern showrooms.

He says that 40 companies now operate in Lodz, and competition for business is fierce. He even claims to have been the target of an assassination attempt by some of his rivals.

In his view, some smaller firms can only compete with the large companies by buying information from medical workers to ensure they are the first to make contact with relatives of people who have died.

Suspicious delays

As well as the sale of information, the police are investigating allegations that rescue workers sometimes used drugs to asphyxiate seriously ill patients once their relatives had agreed to use particular funeral homes.

It is also claimed that ambulances were often deliberately driven to the scene of an emergency slowly, to increase the likelihood that the patient would die.

Our activities are concerned with bringing back a measure of control to prevent the incidents in Lodz ever happening again

Health Minister Mariusz Lapinski
The medical rescue co-ordinator of Lodz fire service, Ignacy Baumberg, says he sometimes found the length of time it took ambulances to respond to emergency calls extremely suspicious.

Poland's Health Minister, Mariusz Lapinski, says that reforms to the country's health service have led to a loss of control and accountability in the system, which he is now trying to rectify.

"Our activities at the Ministry of Health are concerned with bringing back a measure of control over the Polish health service to prevent the incidents in Lodz ever happening again, so they will never be repeated," he told the BBC.

As the police investigation continues in Lodz itself, evidence is also emerging that similar practices may have taken place in other Polish cities.

Whatever the result of the investigation, the biggest challenge now facing Poland's health service is to rebuild the public's shattered confidence in the country's medical workers.

See also:

25 Jan 02 | Europe
'Patients left to die' in Poland
09 Nov 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
30 Nov 01 | Europe
EU fears divide Poland
05 Feb 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
Poland's neurologist turned pop singer
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