Koketso Moeti
Koketso Moeti

Public hospitals, a mother’s worst nightmare

The right to healthcare is a right that’s intricately linked to our right to life. Not only because not having any can result in death but because it so deeply affects our quality of life. A person’s right to quality healthcare and life should not be determined by their socio-economic status.

A few months ago my son developed a cold. His nose was runny and blocked, he coughed and occasionally had a fever. Soon thereafter he started throwing up. His fever got worse and he weakened drastically and eventually got into such a bad state that I had to take him to hospital. We arrived just after 6pm. I waited as a file was opened for him and joined the queue. His fever continued to soar and he grew paler by the minute. Red circles formed around his eyes and he was getting weaker. With every fibre of my being I wanted to scream out for someone to attend to my son but the haunted look in the eyes of the woman in front of me kept me quiet. Like me she too wanted her son to be attended to and so did all the other women in the queue.

The doctor saw us close to 11pm and put him on a drip despite not answering my questions about what was in it and what it was for. We were sent for X-rays and returned to re-join the queue. Only after midnight was my son admitted to the paediatric ward. I looked around and noticed that most of the children were not covered as they slept despite the cold. The hospital provided no blankets. I was lucky, my son had a thick, warm blankey I’d brought along and a soft one I’d wrapped him in before covering him.

One of the women needed boiled water and formula to make a bottle for her screaming infant. She had to wait because the nurses were busy and patients were not allowed in the kitchen. Her son cried, not understanding why mommy would not feed him. During the night I made him a bottle. I had brought a flask with boiled water and my own formula — my son didn’t have to wait. The thought stung me.

The next morning the women queued up outside leaving their wailing children behind. They returned with two nappies each. Two nappies for children with diarrhoea? Each time I changed my son’s nappy I was again painfully conscious of how privileged I was. The women spoke about their time here, for many it was not their first and said their children just never seemed to get better.

The doctor eventually came around and examined my son, I asked him more questions. Again, no answers.

I left the hospital after a few days with nothing but a vitamin B and zinc supplement. My son’s symptoms returned, worse than ever. I made arrangements to have him see a private paediatrician. He received a thorough examination. The cause of illness — a number allergies — was explained. Diagrams and models were used to better help me understand what was wrong with him. I was advised how to care for his condition because the allergies could lead to a serious condition. Following that I was taken step-by-step through the prescription. Reasons were given for the medication and the side-effects were discussed, with dosage and use explained to me.

The total expenditure for his care in the private sector came to about R2 500. This is a lot of money, which many in South Africa do not have to spare. I earn no regular income and even when I do, it’s on the lower side. I’m aware that I enjoy social support most mothers don’t have. Support which has me sure that no matter how bad things get, my children will always be cared for. I cannot say my son would have died had he not been taken to a private doctor but I do know the supplements the hospital gave us were inadequate and he would still be untreated had we not had a choice.

Who knows what could have happened then? Who knows what happens to the many other children whose mothers have no alternative?

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    • anib

      I also cant afford normal medical care for me or my family… and I worry… that I could’ve maybe saved my dad’s life if he had the proper medical care. I shudder at the thought.

    • camilla jones

      I watch the news from SA often, I find this article indeed very sad. South Africa had some of the best hospitals globally if I am correct. What has happened to this beautiful country. Jobs need to be made open to all races, training and education needs to be intensified. Social structure is of the upmost importance as the rape and murder numbers are huge. Tourism needs to be put into place, animals need to be protected as her people.

    • William Sebogwane

      I couldnt agree with you more Koki, our public health system is a mess. The thought of your loved ones being sick and be admitted to a public hospitals give me sleepless nights. The problem is we are not holding people running this hospital accountable and we expect the situation to improve. I am currently paying a lot of money for medical aid, which should be going to my child’s education but because i dont want to risk the lifes of my family by taking them to a public hospital. I sympathise and feel sorry for those who cant afford medical aid. I think it is time we hold people accountable, because we pay their salaries.

    • http://seowritingexpert.weebly.com Gerard

      The manner in which many services are just going down the tubes, is symptomatic of what is happening in the rest of the country i.e. Marikana, Nkandlagate, service delivery protest, dying infants in Eastern Cape hospitals and the list becomes unless. We have a profound lack of leadership, coupled with self serving interest. Not to defend doctors, many of then are so overworked and disilussioned, that they are forced to adopt this type of attitude.

      My heart goes out for you as a mother, because my own mother was in Cape Town’s Groote Schuur hospital not so long ago, but fortunately the health care service and her stay for the 3 days, was exceptionally good.

    • DocAlot

      Thank you for keeping this issue topical.

      Minister Motsoaledi is too concerned with getting that Private Paed to charge you peanuts, and effectively ruin his livelihood and devalue his 12 years of post graduate education than sorting out the public sector. I don’t know of a single politician that uses the public hospitals. That speaks volumes.

      The public hospitals in Gauteng look after patients from all over Southern Africa, in large volumes, and charge nothing. Many are too concerned with being accused of Xenophobia, and often treat the foreign patients better than SA citizens.

      Despite this mess, and the crises in the Department of Health, the Minister and the ANC are piloting NHI. This will be a disater. It is fiscally impossible in SA. In many first world countries with lesser burdens of disease than SA, NHI has proven to a massive economic burden. Asking the handful of taxpayers in SA to carry this burden is moronic. Moronic more so when one realises that the service would be far from guaranteed, and far less competent than what one’s medical aid would afford.

      I cannot trust the government to provide healthcare for me, under any circumstances. The hospital I work at has no Paper, no Panado, and often no linen. It is a truely hopeless situation that can only be reversed by initially recognising it as a crisis. That is asking for too much.

    • n.k

      I worked in a government hospital for the obligated period…it really is that bad. Fortunately we had an intern who had a passion for paediatrics. But the lack of basic meds and equipment is shocking. It is no wonder that healthcare professionals would. rather work in private hospitals. Althoug I did work in a rural hospital; I hear from friends that it is exactly the same at the large urban gov hospitals.
      Everyone says we have a shortage of nurses; to some extend, yes, maybe but we actually have a shortage of nurses that WORK. COUNTless people stand around daily…a friend who is from the Netherlands came to work as a nurse where I worked – she was SHOCKED at the amount of responsibility everyone has (which is utterly minimal; and still does not get done). One of our doctors tried with the help of an NGO to provide anti-retroviral drugs for HIV+ patients as there was no drugs and a person from the Dept of Health came all the way to the hospital to tell him that it is illegal (which I’m not sure is the case) and told him to stop. He was so frustrated, this one guy just trying to do good, not costing the government anything. He grabbbed this person’s official picture (that hung in the room) and threw it in a trash can, then resigned.
      Corruption and ill mananagement needs to be stopped; the basic human right of access to healthcare is not being met.

    • Grant

      And yet these same poor people keep voting for the same party that is responsible for spreading this culture of mediocrity that blights our hospitals, schools and every other avenue of our governmental service from the police to the SABC, from Telkom to Eskom. It is the choice of every South African that manifests as this mess and believe me we all feel it no matter who you are. The wealthy are targets of crime and murder, the poor are recipients of ghastly health care and shocking education.

      The question becomes: whose responsibility is it to deliver these basic rights? Why do people not vote for change? When the crisis is this obvious why is there no shift away from those who are in charge? Is the need for the ANC to succeed so linked to the pride of the majority here that they will not face the fact that they have failed and start voting for other parties at least out of sheer desperation?

      This article also highlights why nationalisation is such a terrible idea. Nationalise the mines and you will have mines that run like our hospitals. It is that simple, it really is.

    • problems

      There are many sides to this story. I spent many years in public hospitals with a terminally ill child and without fail, the doctors were superb, but grossly overworked. Some of the more senior nurses, black and white, were superb as well (and continue to be), but after 1994, sorry to say, things just nosedived. Over the years I have personally witnessed (always) fat, lazy nurses neglecting patients, disabling drip alarms so that they could sleep in peace at nightor watch TV. I will never forget seeing an elderly black patient who had removed her own hospital pyjamas (probably dementia) being left to lie naked and uncovered for a whole day and night (through visiting hours) and going hungry because she could not feed herself properly. She was shown no sympathy and no dignity. I was on more than one occasion told to bring “coldrink” and “they” would look after my child properly. It is just sickening because these fat greedyand corrupt people shouldn’t be in the profession at all – they discredit all the fantastic nurses out there – and they and their administrative ilk have brought our country’s once fantastic state hospital to their knees. Until we respect human dignity above all else it will continue. We are our own worst enemy.

    • MLH

      A bug-bear of mine…during the 80s a dear friend regularly went to the clinic for treatment and was told no more than she had ‘women’s problems’. We gave her what questions to ask and vetted all the tests and medication she was given. It seemed to be nothing serious and she was given no extra info. She eventually died of ovarian cancer.

      It was so refreshing to listen to my domestic helper a fortnight ago telling me she was to go into hospital to have a lump removed from her breast. She spoke about it openly in front of my son and also to her other employer, a male. When he and I discussed it, we realised we were the ones holding back, nervous of warning her that this could turn into something very big and nasty.
      She’s back at work again, awaiting biopsy results, but has been told by her doctor there’s every chance it was benign. When I told her we were nervous her op would be bigger than she’d been told, she said she’d shared a ward with women who’d had double mastectomies’ something she’d not seen before.
      So, I must hand it to her doctor from the clinic in Umlazi and her surgeon, for informing her simply and as completely as possible…altho’ she can read and write, she’s no rocket scientist.
      I just wish medical staff would understand that you don’t need a degree to understand the basics. A healthy dollop of good, common sense is enough.

    • Lennon

      My mom had a horrible time at the Conradie clinic in Thornton after getting hip surgery. A lot of her stuff was stolen and the nurses just didn’t care at all.

      My dad spent a month in Tygerberg Hospital. Nasty place that. The smell of urine as you walk in reminds me of Harrington Street in CT or platform 11 at Bellville Station. It looks terribly run-down; their computer systems are an absolute joke.

    • The Critical Cynic

      It should be obligatory for ALL government employees from the president down to make use of public facilities whenever they are available.
      Use public hospital, schools, transport, fly economy class, serve the people instead of this abomination they like to congratulate themselves on. Really, a bunch of self-serving people who are convinced they are doing a good job when the public, especially the poor and downtrodden they claim to represent, bear the brunt of their ineptitude and mismanagement.

      They should be made to stand in the long queue and make use of the abysmal systems they foist onto the public, you know, the systems that through their absolute inefficiency cost the ordinary people their valuable time and scarce money. Having to take inordinate amounts of time off to get a drivers licence, contest a traffic fine, contest a rates bill, be served in a public hospital, report a crime, wait for a telephone installation etc I deliberately make no distinction between municipal and national service delivery as they are both a disgraceful shambles and an insult to the people who voted them in to serve, not self-serve!

      SA is a wonderful example of why the concept of democracy is flawed, but as a member of a minority group here my views don’t matter if they are not a reflection of the small elite minority that claim to represent the majority. It’s becoming essential to be cynical in this circus…

    • Oldfox

      Hypocritical senior govt officials are always complaining about the ratio of per capita health spending in the private and public sectors. The ratio is irrelevant. Even if it is 100:1, there is a need for a pvt sector health service in just about every country in the world.
      Of course, we all know that just about every senior govt official uses private healthcare in SA.

    • Oldfox

      The Provincial Dep. Of Health in a province I will not name, found that a Ugandan working in a provincial hospital as a medical doctor was not a medical doctor. He had a qualification lower than that of a registered nurse in SA. His qualification was something similar to that of a Nurse Aide!

    • Dinileminyanya

      It is painful to view the sorry state of public health institutions for they mostly service the poor and struggling working class clientel. Our ailing nation should not accept the mediocre service that is provided at clinics and hospitals under the administration of government. Health is interlinked with quality of life. We, therefore, ought to ensure that we do not only call for accountability, but drastically punish the politicians and their functionaries for compromising our health.

      Many of our fellow brothers and sisters lose their lives due to scant regard on service excellence from health workers and managers. What impact has the NHI’s introduction had on the quality of service to the socio-economically disadvantaged citizens? Let us hilight and prioritise healthcare for the benefit of our nation.

    • Oldfox

      The problems are different, in different provinces. There are problems in W. Cape, such as insufficient medication at clinics. Maybe overworked doctors too.
      Gauteng has severe problems which worsened dramatically after 2005. Tenderpreneurs overcharged for equipment and services, resulting in budgets being fully spent long before the end of a financial year. The Minister of Health admitted this during a press interview. In other cases, tenderpreneurs sell substandard products at the same price as high quality products. I did not read about this in the newspaper story of the interview. A doctor told me she may need to use 5 low quality threads for stitching where one high quality stitch would suffice.

      My wife got superb treatment by nurses in an ICU ward at a public hospital. It was however a large academic hospital. The CEO and Nursing Services manager/director/superintendant do daily ward inspections at that hospital. I think the lazy nurses are at smaller hospitals.

    • Momma Cyndi

      As a mother, I can think of nothing more traumatising. My heart goes out to you and my best wishes to your precious angel.

      Reading the comments was just as heart breaking. To think how far we have sunk

      I know of a few doctors and nurses who have left SA due to the shocking conditions they work under. Some of them were forced (through circumstance) to work 18 to 30 hour shifts, purely due to lack of manpower. There are tales of operating theaters with no running water or latex gloves and anesthetists running between two theaters whilst trying to keep two patients alive simultaneously. I can see how that would result in you becoming nothing but another block on the conveyor belt.

      I’ve also heard the other stories of women being slapped because they must ‘woman up’ during birthing and only after 10 hours, and a CP baby later, getting a doctor’s to notice that it is a breach birth. Or the child who was left to die because the doctor ‘forgot’ to ask if he was allergic to penicillin.

      Doc Aaron needs to stop with his peripheral pet projects and concentrate on the basics. Telling us that ‘it is a problem’ was refreshing at first but now it is just hot air and it is fast losing its shine.

    • Max

      Stop whining. The disgusting state of our hospitals is because of apartheid and rich white businessmen. We can’t afford better public hospitals. That would cost millions upon millions. What we need is proper housing and security for the president and his wives. So, suck it up folks.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Busi

      It is so painful what we experience in this gorvenment hospitals, The vallue of a human being in this hospital is undermined, most people cannot afford the medical aid nor even consulting private doctor and the hospital becomes their only choice.

      My personal opinion is that the recruitment department in hospitals should ensure that they recruit the right candidates for the right job, because this could be one of the reasons the goverment hosptals encounts failure due to negligence and shameles staff who has lost rpide in work and more so do not have passion in what they are doing.

      The qeues and the srvice is really sickening and the Govenment should actually estalish the mechanism as to what can be done adress this gab and to at least apply similar standards as of those from the private hospital. Why cant our government hospital give the same treatment like the one at the private hospital.

      is it because they have access to everything, that they have actually forgotten about their Brothers and Sisters?

    • johnbpatson

      My sister is a brilliant nurse, trained in South African hospitals, who as her career progressed took and paid for (on her own time and from her small salary) further internationally recognized diplomas in emergency care, para-medic first aid and administration.
      Although “only” a nursing sister, she was officially number two in the emergency section of a city hospital — effectively number one as the ANC cadre parachuted in as number one was never there. The unit was busy but efficient, clean and caring.
      Then the Department of Health discovered 1) she was white 2) she did not have a degree.
      She was sacked (and now earns far more running a factory dispensary ).
      The emergency department is now dirty, smelly, run-down, disorganized and recently found a body on a stretcher in a store room, which had been there for at least two weeks.
      But hey, my sister’s university qualified successors (there are three of them) are all the right colour, all earn more than she did and pay party dues, so it cannot be too bad!

    • Graham

      45 years ago South Africa had the first successful heart transplant.
      These days babies die needlessly in hospitals and management call it “learning experiences”.

      How very far we have come.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/suntoshpillay suntosh

      Good read. These stories need to be told, often on behalf of the many public-hospital users who have no way of writing their experiences into the media.

      BUT – we also need to focus on “health promotion”, which exists outside the realm of curative (reactive) healthcare that requires hospitals and clinics.

      Preventing illness (mental or physical) will save tons of money by reducing the number of people needing treatment.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/koketsomoeti Koketso Moeti

      There are too many stories like mine unfortunately and the hearbreak and sorrow it causes often goes untold. It is sad to see what we have come to as a nation, especially as the consequences are bourne mostly by innocent souls. Your views are very valued all.

      @Suntosh, I agree. That’s why basic services such as access to water, etc are essential. Not providing these only serves to further burden an already overwhelmed health system, because it negatively affects quality of life…

    • smjansen

      i personally feel it starts at tertiary institutes where faculties such as nursing and education are treated like pro bono field which you can just go into when you have no direction in life….what we as a country need is nurses who actually have a passion for working in the medical field and ensuring the well-bieng of others…not lazy people who feel that getting a job at a gov hospital is easy cash with all the added benefits….only then will it come right…for if you dont have a passion for working with people then DONT!!!!!!