Grim cost of the strike

Date: 11 Jun 2007
Paramedics shunted from one hospital to another in search of help Patients are dying at an unprecedented rate, according to stressed ambulance crews who have provided a glimpse of what it's like working at the coalface of a strike that has crippled public hospitals. Spot visits by The Star to Johannesburg's two largest hospitals yesterday painted a bleak picture of government health services. And paramedics - who agreed to be interviewed so long as their names were not used - said their normally hectic 12-hour shifts had been made unbearable by the strike. It resulted in their driving in circles between hospitals, searching desperately for doctors and nurses to attend to their patients. "We pick up people in Orange Farm and bring them to Bara. But there are no doctors there, so they turn us away and we have to go to Joburg Hospital," one paramedic outside Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto said yesterday. "If they are also closed then we often end up at Sebokeng Hospital in Ekurhuleni. Four of our patients died in Sebokeng last week because of this. "We aren't striking but we are the ones who are affected." The Star found shocking conditions during its spot visits - among these, bleeding patients at Bara lying unattended in outdoor courtyards and corridors of uncollected, hazardous medical waste. Johannesburg Hospital wasn't much better, with unimpeded access to several wards, including the children's wards, where metal security gates were left unlocked. The lack of security could allow striking health workers to gain access to wards undetected. Sarah*, whose 3-year-old son has meningitis, said she was forced to clean his room herself and that medication and doctors were hard to come by in recent days. The smell of rotting food hung in the air near the children's wing, coming from stacks of black plastic crates containing mouldy hospital meals. In children's ward 277, where smiling teddy bears hung in the air and nurses watched television in a nearby staff room, children played behind unlocked doors. Neo (5) lugged her drip around the ward, playing hide-and-seek with a friend who had a swollen face. We were able to photograph and interview patients and parents while nurses laughed uproariously metres away. The department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Johannesburg Hospital was also easy to access, and unlocked doors proved to hold filthy rooms and metal cabinets filled with condoms, used syringes and cigarette stubs. Unwashed clothes, much of it bloodied and crumpled, lay around the hospital. Bins were overflowing and it looked as if rubbish hadn't been collected for several days. Litter outside both Bara and Joburg hospitals was excessive. Security at the maternity section of Bara left much to be desired. Wards containing half-naked women in labour were accessed easily, as were storerooms containing medication and equipment. Empty operating theatres, radios blaring eerily, were dirty. Unwashed kidney dishes, bloody injections in unsealed medical waste containers and dirty bedpans were found in several areas of the hospital. In one outdoor courtyard near the maternity ward, The Star was forced to alert doctors to the presence of a man on the floor bleeding profusely from his mouth and head. Homeless Robert MacCallum (77), who spends much of his time in casualty ward waiting rooms, told The Star he wandered between Johannesburg, South Rand and Bara hospitals. Staff at South Rand were the rudest by far, he noted, while nurses and security guards at Johannesburg Hospital knew him by name. Gauteng Department of Health spokesperson Zanele Mngadi said there had been a positive response to their call for retired nurses to fill in for striking workers, but more were needed. She would not say where the retired nurses had been deployed, but Johannesburg Hospital CEO Sagie Pillay confirmed his was not one of the hospitals to which retirees had responded to calls for help. Meanwhile, soldiers - at least 2 200 of them at public hospitals around the country - are doing their best to keep hospitals functioning. Three of them joked while mopping the 250m-long Hospital Avenue inside Johannesburg Hospital. Others were active at hospitals we visited - trying to save the life of an epileptic patient outside the emergency ward at Bara or guarding entrances at Helen Joseph Hospital, armed with guns. By Sheena Adams The Star 11/06/07 e1