Mourners in Ecuador had gathered at the funeral of retired nurse Bella Montoya when they heard strange noises coming from inside the coffin.
That might sound like a trope from a horror movie, but relatives were startled to see that Montoya — who had been declared dead after she was believed to have suffered a stroke and cardiac arrest — was still alive and breathing, her family and officials said Monday.
“It gave us all a fright,” her son, Gilberto Barbera, told The Associated Press.
The woman, 76, was unconscious when her family took her to the hospital in the central city of Babahoyo on Friday, her son told the AP.
She did not respond to resuscitation, and the doctor on duty at Hospital Martín Icaza de Babahoyo declared that she had died, the Ecuadorian health ministry said in a statement.
Her family took her to the funeral home the same day, only to hear sounds from inside her coffin during the wake, her son said.
“There were about 20 of us there,” he said. “After about five hours of the wake, the coffin started to make sounds. My mom was wrapped in sheets and hitting the coffin, and when we approached we could see that she was breathing heavily.”
Video recorded immediately afterward showed a coffin resting on the floor of a small, bare, light-blue room furnished with a silver crucifix and a pedestal fan. Inside the open casket was a woman with a gaunt face and gray hair, who was moving her mouth up and down as two men supported her head.
She was rushed back to the hospital, where she remained intubated in intensive care, the health ministry said, describing her condition as “unstable.” Her son said doctors had not given them much hope about her prognosis.
The health ministry said it has formed a committee with other government agencies to audit how the premature declaration of death came about.
Ecuador's public health care system provides universal coverage.
Even though Ecuador is a middle-income nation, its health care system is ranked in the global top 50 for efficiency, based on government spending and life expectancy, according to the Bloomberg Health-Efficiency Index.
After the incident Friday, the health ministry tried to reassure Ecuadorians that it “maintains the offer of health services to the population at all levels of care.”
CORRECTION (June 13, 2023, 7:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled part of the name of the hospital where Bella Montoya was mistakenly declared dead. It is Hospital Martín Icaza de Babahoyo, not Marlin.