A Woman Was Embalmed Alive In Russia - What Does That Actually Mean?

An example of laparoscopic surgery, also called minimally invasive surgery, of the abdomen. Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

Aliyah Kovner 12 Apr 2018, 17:26

A 28-year-old Russian woman died last week after doctors mistakenly infused her body with a concentrated embalming chemical during routine surgery.

According to a report by the state-controlled news agency RT, Ekaterina Fedyaeva was at a hospital in the western Russian city of Ulyanovsk undergoing a laparoscopic operation to remove ovarian cysts, in the hopes of soon becoming pregnant. The simple procedure went catastrophically wrong when medical staff injected formalin into her abdominal cavity, believing it to saline. (Conflicting accounts state that she was attached to a formalin IV drip.) After realizing their error, the team attempted to wash out her abdominal cavity, but it was ineffective.

Ms Fedyaeva is said to have survived for 14 days before dying from multi-organ failure. 

Formalin is a combination of water, methyl alcohol, and formaldehyde – a highly toxic chemical used for embalming that occurs as a gas at room temperature yet can be stably dissolved in liquid mixtures.

When formaldehyde comes into contact with living tissue, it “fixes” the organic structures within by breaking the molecular bonds within individual proteins and other nitrogen-containing molecules then knitting the whole lot together. This cross-linking process preserves laboratory specimens – or complete bodies – in a near-natural state while delaying the decay process.

Amphibians preserved in an unknown concentration of dissolved formaldehyde, at the Berlin Natural History Museum. Wikimedia Commons

 

Formalin, composed of 37 percent formaldehyde, is much stronger than most embalming agents. An adult may die from ingesting just two tablespoons.

Because of the obvious ethical concerns of giving a highly caustic chemical to a living animal, it’s hard to say what exactly happened within Ms Fedyaeva’s body, but it was indisputably agonizing. 

“If she had a bag, and if the entire IV bag was injected into her system — well, I just don’t know how she lived for 14 hours,” Pennsylvania funeral director Caleb Wilde explained to The Verge. “So I’m thinking that maybe the entire bag was not injected into her system."

“The heart probably pumped the formation through the arterial system, and so it would have spread all throughout her body. I can only imagine that it would have felt like a burning sensation. You’re being ripped apart on a molecular level from the inside out.”

The RT article states that the medical team did not immediately disclose what happened to Ms Fedyaeva to her family, instead, they conferred amongst themselves and gave her some sort of injection after she complained of severe pain upon waking up.

Within hours, however, the truth came out as Ms Fedyaeva's condition quickly deteriorated. She was placed in a medically induced coma and flown to a hospital in Moscow, where a new team of doctors frantically tried to save her life. 

Multiple reports confirm that the medical staff who participated in her surgery and the hospital's chief doctor have been fired, following an investigation that revealed the staff had failed to read the formalin vial’s label prior to administration.

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