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An Eastern Cape father's traumatic experience with local public health facilities
Vanessa Burger

Babsy’s family is amongst the 40 million or so mostly poor black South Africans who, as the economy collapses and unemployment rockets, are increasingly forced to rely on a crumbling public health system. The government is clearly not interested in providing adequate health services for poor people.

Babsy Mpheshwa was introduced to me by a Glebelands community leader, as a friend from the same area of the Eastern Cape. I was told Babsy wanted to speak of his experiences with the Eastern Cape Health Department and the treatment his two sons and nephew received after they were involved in a serious car crash just over a week ago. This is Babsy’s story:

At about 04h30 on the morning of Saturday 28 January, Babsy’s two sons and nephew, aged between 21 and 27 years, had been travelling from Flagstaff to Bizana, when, at a place called Magusheni, they were involved in an accident and their vehicle overturned. All three young men were badly injured and sustained head injuries, a broken jaw, ribs and arm, a badly lacerated tongue, severe bruising and other cuts and abrasions.

They were in considerable pain and suffering from shock when taken by ambulance to the Casualty Department of Bizana’s St Patrick’s Hospital. Once in Casualty they sat on a wooden bench awaiting medical treatment where they waited and waited and waited….

Hospital staff apparently told Babsy’s brother, who arrived at St Patrick’s shortly after hearing about the accident, that he “must stay to watch the patients.” It seemed hospital staff were too busy to keep an eye on the injured.

This Babsy’s brother did, spending the night in the Casualty Department on the same wooden bench occupied by his brother’s seriously injured sons and nephew. By then, more than 18 hours had elapsed since the three young men had arrived at Casualty, yet they had still not been examined by a doctor, nor had their wounds cleaned, nor had their broken bones x-rayed, nor been given anything for pain, nor indeed, received any medical attention or care whatsoever.

According to Wikipedia, St Patrick’s Hospital is a provincial government-funded hospital in the Alfred Nzo District of the Eastern Cape. As of 2015 the hospital reportedly had 290 beds, 12 doctors, two clinical associates, two dentists, and numerous allied health professionals and nursing staff. It services a community of around 200 000 people and treats 20 – 30 trauma cases and 250 outpatients per day, as well as several hundred births every month. The hospital is listed as having emergency and outpatients departments; an operating theatre and CSSD services; paediatric and maternity wards; and is supposed to provide the Bizana community with surgical, medical, ophthalmology, pharmacy, ARV, trauma counseling, x-ray, physiotherapy, occupational health, termination of pregnancy and mortuary services. The hospital reportedly underwent a multi-million rand major upgrade sometime after 2008.

Babsy said hospital staff had then advised his brother that his injured relatives would have to wait to be transferred to Bedford Hospital at Mthatha before they could receive urgently needed medical treatment.  

When, late on Sunday afternoon - more than 36 hours after the accident - Babsy’s brother was told that the badly injured young men could not be transferred to Bedford Hospital before the following Wednesday, some five days after the accident, he called Babsy, (who lives and works in Durban) and asked him to come immediately.

When Babsy arrived at St Patrick’s Hospital, he learned from his brother, who had remained on the wooden bench throughout the ordeal, that his sons’ and nephew’s wounds had only been cleaned once staff had heard he was on his way to the hospital.

Babsy verified all that St Patrick’s staff had told his brother, particularly that the soonest his family members would likely receive medical attention would be in five days time after they had been moved to Mthatha’s Bedford Hospital.

Babsy was understandably upset and described complaints made by other community members about St Patrick’s. He said of Bizana’s only hospital: “we call it the mortuary, because we do not come here for treatment – we come here to die.”

Babsy claimed Bedford was no better and that he was aware of seriously ill Bizana residents who had been sent to Bedford without having first been stabilized or examined by local doctors, only to be turned away on reaching Bedford and given another date on which they were told to return for treatment. A round trip from Bizana to Mthatha and back is over 450km.

Bedford Hospital is listed as having pretty much the same facilities as St Patrick’s including x-ray, emergency, surgical and trauma counseling services. Justification for St Patrick’s staff’s insistence that the patients be moved to Mthatha therefore remains unclear.

Babsy assessed the pain and suffering his children had already experienced, their present condition and the likelihood of their obtaining proper (or any) medical treatment at Bedford; and decided it would be safer and quicker to drive to Prince Mshiyeni Hospital in Umlazi, Durban; an almost six-hour, excruciatingly painful journey for the young men. On reaching Prince Mshiyeni, Babsy was relieved when they finally received medical assistance.

Babsy’s sons have since been discharged and he took them back to the Eastern Cape a week after their ordeal.

His nephew, however, who sustained head injuries, a broken arm and severely lacerated tongue, remains in hospital. Babsy is worried. He said, “his mind is not right, he seems confused.” His nephew will undergo a psychiatric assessment.

Justifiably, Babsy is extremely angry over the way his family was treated and worried about potential long-term effects of the ordeal on his sons’, and particularly his nephew’s, recovery. He wanted to know, what if he - as was the case with most poor, rural people - had not had access to a car? He said it was utterly unacceptable that he had been forced to seek urgent medical treatment for his family in another province, hundreds of kilometres away.

And what if his sons and nephew had sustained more critical injuries? Or were elderly and frail? Would they still have been left for days, their wounds unwashed, waiting indefinitely on a hard wooden bench for medical treatment? Babsy thinks it likely. He claims he is aware of a number of local people whose broken bones have knit at strange angles, and who can no longer use their limbs after they failed to receive treatment at both St Patrick’s and Bedford hospitals.

Babsy said he wished to bring to the notice of the media, the public, the government, and particularly the Department of Health, the appalling state of rural, Eastern Cape health facilities. He said it was clear that government did not really concern itself with providing proper health care for poor communities, particularly those in the Eastern Cape. He suggested that more people should speak out about their experiences at government health facilities, instead of suffering in silence.

Babsy’s family is amongst the 40 million or so, mostly poor, black South Africans, who, as our economy collapses and unemployment rockets, are increasingly forced to rely on a crumbling public health system – a government department that (according to the DoH website) tendered over R38 billion for its 2016/17 annual budget, and against which, by 2015, an excess of R25 billion was reportedly outstanding in claims for medical malpractice and negligence.

Babsy wishes to thank the doctors and staff of Prince Mshiyeni Hospital for their help, kindness and excellent medical care provided to his family members.   

[Babsy Mpheshwa can be reached for interviews on 0729682140]

* Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice. Cell: 082 847 7766 /  Email: [email protected]



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