Problems on hold
No matter what Egyptian officials claim, negligence and inadequacy have become part and parcel of our lives; so much so that incidents of gross negligence have by now earned the all too familiar label “unfortunate incidents”. The label is by all standards mild and reflects official apathy, confirming two sorry facts: that an Egyptian is of no value on the official level, and that no one is ever held accountable for any inadequacy. Innocent victims pay the price of no crime they ever committed while offenders run scot-free.
Today’s tragedy is eight months old. Watani was informed of the details by the victim herself, while all officials related in any way to the incident have kept quiet about it, shirking off all responsibility. It is not as though the site of the accident were some obscure workshop or shady laboratory where no safety rules are followed; it is no less than a Chemistry laboratory in Assiut University—one of the oldest and most respectable of Egypt’s universities. And the victim is 18-year-old Mariam Yusri Adeeb who lost her left eye. I call for a re-investigation of the incident in order to determine and hold accountable whoever was responsible for the gross deficiency in the most preliminary safety procedures that ought to be followed in a laboratory.
Mariam wrote to Watani as follows:
“Monday 31 March 2008 will always be a date I would never forget. It was the day I first attended a Chemistry laboratory session as a First Year student at the Faculty of Education, Assiut University. We were 97 students under the supervision of three laboratory assistants, one of whom explained the experiment we were required to carry out. We were not informed of the nature or hazards of the substances we were to use in the experiment—one of which was caustic soda—neither were we warned to exercise any precaution when conducting the experiment. Each of us was then handed by the lab technician a scrap of paper upon which was placed a handful of the material we were to use for the experiment. Once I placed the material in the test tube and proceeded to heat it, the test tube blew up in my face, burning it and my left eye.
“I screamed out in pain. My screams brought my colleagues quickly to my side while the lab assistants merely went on gossiping in a corner of the lab. When the chaos finally drew their attention they shouted at each student to go back to his or her place. By that time I ran up to one of the assistants and cried for help explaining that the pain in my eye was unbearable. At that he said: ‘Go wash your face with water and the lab technician will give you some vaseline for the burns.’ I could no longer bear the pain and rushed out of the lab to seek help. I later learned from the other students that he had then told them: ‘Watch out, this is caustic soda; it can eat up steel.’ It is tragic we were never so cautioned before.
“I was given no first aid whatsoever. My face was by then swollen and there was searing pain in my eye. One of the workers in the lab suggested they take me to the nearby hospital but the assistant told him it was already past 2:00pm and no doctors would be around; go to the pharmacy, ‘the pharmacist will give you some first aid,’ he said. The pharmacist was shocked at my condition and told us to rush to the nearest hospital. At the nearest hospital we were told they had no capacity to treat my case and we were recommended to go to Assiut University teaching hospital. It was already three hours after the accident when we entered the teaching hospital. The doctor there washed the eye with a saline solution which he said should have been applied to the eye directly once the accident occurred and which is usually available in any lab. He said I should be seeing a specialist.
“By that time one of my colleagues had called my family who hurried to Assiut from our nearby hometown of Qoussiya. They took me to a specialist who, once he had examined my eye, said: ‘You’re too late; the eye is lost. I’ll try a treatment for six months but, frankly, we need a miracle from God.’ For six months I went through treatment and withstood some excruciating pain, but at the end the verdict was that my eye was forever lost.
“The ophthalmologist at Assiut University teaching hospital told me I had to get an official report from the university that I had lost my eye while working in the laboratory. Regretfully, none of the university staff or laboratory workers who had witnessed the accident did anything to have that report issued, in fact they procrastinated and sidelined the matter until I lost all hope of getting that report. I went with my request to the college dean who referred the matter to the dean of student affairs who in turn referred it to the legal affairs department. Even though I got to know an investigation was being conducted and my colleagues had been asked to testify, the investigation was closed, no-one was held accountable, and none of my rights were acknowledged. On 14 May 2008 I filed a report with the police confirming all the details of the matter.
“My personal tragedy aside, it is business as usual at Assiut University. The truth about the accident has been buried with the investigation that closed with no-one responsible for the physical loss and psychological trauma I went through. As to the inadequacy, gross negligence, and absolute disregard of safety at Assiut University, it is well and thriving, ready to claim the next victim.”
I raise the case of Mariam Adeeb to the attention of the President of Assiut University and to the Minister of Higher Education. I hope their scientific and humanitarian consciences would prompt them to compensate Mariam for her huge loss and to take measures to avert similar incidents in the future.
14 December 2008