Posted : 2008-05-22 17:43
Updated : 2008-05-22 17:43

Death in Sauna Shrouded in Mystery

The late Michael White
By Bae Ji-sook
Staff Reporter

GYEONGSAN ― Suspicions and doubts are being amplified over the death of 14-year-old American, Michael White, who is assumed to have drowned in a 40-centimeter-deep pool at a sauna in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province.

The parties involved are poles apart as to who is to blame, following an autopsy that concluded he ``drowned in suspicious circumstances.'' His mother, Stephannie White, has accused the sauna of negligence and medical staff of poor emergency treatment. The latter, however, claim the death was unavoidable considering the point at which he was found.

Autopsy Report

Gyeongsan Police said the tragedy took place on May 10, when Stephannie White, a lecturer at Yeungnam University, her son Michael and two of her friends visited a jjimjilbang (Korean sauna) around 10:10 p.m. Her son went into the male bathing room, while White and her friends went to the ladies' section. Some considerable time later, sauna staff called the mother to come and check on her son who was in a critical condition.

When she arrived at the scene, which she testified was around 11: 48 p.m., her son had already collapsed and emergency staff were placing him into an ambulance. On arrival at the hospital medical staff tried to resuscitate him through cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), but despite their efforts he was said to have been declared dead a few minutes later.

The autopsy said Michael had no external or internal injuries, no cardiac-related problems or brain disorders. His mother said he was not diabetic and had no chronic illness that could have caused his collapse.

Michael had allegedly been coughing and dry retching ― without anyone inside the sauna offering assistance ― for some time, the autopsy added.

Negligence Blamed

Stephannie White claimed that the paramedics' performance inside the ambulance was poor and that she, a certified and trained lifesaver, could have done better had she been informed earlier.

She said the medical staff at the hospital did not try to aspirate the fluid from her son's lungs, and did not accurately ascertain his status before declaring him dead.

White also said the police did not question people who were in the sauna when the incident took place and could have had information about what happened.

She also criticized the public negligence toward the boy. ``If anyone had asked him how he was or tried to wake him up earlier when he was coughing or making noise while trying to get up ― you can hear all that in the sauna ― Mike would be alive,'' she said. The frustrated mother is planning to take legal action to uncover the truth and with the American Embassy's help.

Too Late to Save?

However, the sauna and emergency room staff tell a different story.

Lee Jeong-seop, the manager of the sauna, said one of his workers found Michael face down in the pool, but at first assumed that he was playing around. Sometime later he became suspicious and dragged the boy out of the pool with the help of other patrons.

He said that as Michael was over six feet tall and weighed more than 100 kilograms, no one assumed he was a child in need of help but an adult kidding around.

Hwang Young-baek of Gyeongsan Fire Station, in charge of the ambulance team, said the emergency measures may have not looked sufficient to a panicked mother, but they had employed every measure to save him. ``He was not breathing and had no pulse, but we did not give up and tried till the very last minute,'' he said.

Hwang added that the emergency rescue system may not look as good as that of the United States, but said this does not mean the measures resulted in his death.

A spokesman of T.K. Medical Center, where Michael was treated, also said he was not breathing and had no pulse when he was admitted. He did not reply when asked whether the medical measures were insufficient as Stephannie White claimed.

Lee Jong-guk, in charge of the police investigation, admitted that the case was tougher than he initially thought. He said there have been past cases of people drowning or dying in saunas, mostly from health-related issues, and that as police thought this was a similar incident they were not legally required to stop or question people at the sauna.

Chung said officers are now gathering information, but chances are low that the exact cause of death can be verified since the boy was in the pool for so long, and more than a week has passed.

Systematical Problems

Unlike America and Europe, where there is the Good Samaritan Law, which imposes no blame when a person dies while receiving emergency treatment from someone attempting to help, in Korea a person who helps can be held liable for the death. Hwang at the fire station said the law hinders people from trying to help a critically ill person ― such as Michael in this case ― as they fear punishment if the outcome proves fatal.

The sauna staff, who were not certified in any rescue related activity, only called an ambulance and waited for the emergency rescue team to arrive and begin basic resuscitation. ``We cannot blame the staff,'' Lee said.

Hwang said the staff were not trained in any emergency measures as the current law does not require them to be educated in CPR, unlike swimming pool staff. ``We are seeking ways to train staff, but unless we take away the legal burden, the effect could be questionable,'' he added.

``We all feel sorry about what happened to the boy. But at this point, the difference in law and culture at bathing places is what is likely to be at fault,'' an officer at the fire station said requesting anonymity.

The Foreign community in Korea continues to pay condolences to the family. Robert Koehler, a blogger who brought the issue to the attention of The Korea Times, said he was shocked. ``Stephannie is a nice woman and we feel deeply sorry for her. I don't understand how not even one person tried to help the boy,'' he said. Stephannie and her friends are planning to hold another vigil, May 25.
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