Even though Multidata did send representatives down to Panama to deliver a patch for the hospitals software and provide its staff with additional operating instructions, the hospital had stopped using the software in June.
Patients were still being treated with the Cobalt-60 teletherapy machine, but the physicists calculated the patients treatment times the old-fashioned way-by hand.
As a result, the hospital could only handle around 60 to 70 patients per day, instead of 100. That led to an even longer waiting list and forced the Panamanian government to start subsidizing private hospitals, where it sends those patients who are employed and therefore covered by social security. So far, says Dr. de la Rosa, the government has spent $10 million subsidizing private treatments.
Meanwhile, the three physicists are free on their own recognizance while they await trial. Two of them-Saldaña and Alvaro Mejia-continue to work at the National Cancer Institute. The physicists are funding their own defense, even though Saldaña, for instance, makes $585 a month.
Saldaña, who has worked at the institute since 1988, says it is difficult to continue after the overdoses, but "if we did not work, the patients would die." Ricardo Lajon, the chief physicist, calls Saldaña "one of the best physicists we have."
The Houston team also praises the physicists. "This was an unfortunate occurrence, which we believe was not foreseeable," its report said. "However once discovered the actions taken were appropriate and the cause was quickly found. The personnel involved are to be commended."
Prosecutor Cristobal Arboleda acknowledges the peculiarity of having hospital workers accused of second-degree murder continue to treat patients. But he says they must be presumed innocent until found guilty and cannot be fired before the trial.
Besides, he says, "administratively, the hospital needs them." Due to a dispute with the Ministry of Health, the entire radiotherapy department has been operating without a license to deliver radiation, a fact that Multidata is using as part of its legal defense. But if the department were shut down, Arboleda says, "90 percent of the cancer patients in Panama would die."
Saldaña today appears calm for someone who faces the possibility of two to four years in prison. Her mother takes care of her 13-year-old son in a town in the highlands, and that will continue if she goes to jail. The families of two of the dead patients have hired a private prosecutor to pressure the judicial system to convict the physicists, a common practice in Panama. Arboleda expects other civil suits to be filed in Panama depending on the outcome of the criminal trial.
Next Page: Lawsuits dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.