Critically ill patients lay unattended as “tsotsis” denied staff access to Tshepong hospital outside Klerksdorp in the North West on Wednesday and asked doctors to pay R20 to enter their workplace.
Desperate doctors and nurses were eventually flown in by helicopter. But strikers then entered the hospital and forced the nurses to go outside, while overturning rubbish bins. Patients ended up serving patients.
One man, with a gunshot wound to the neck, died. It is not known if he would have survived had he been seen earlier, said doctors at the hospital.
“This is probably the only functional hospital in the province. I don’t see how they can cripple this hospital too,” said one doctor, who did not want to be named.
A surgeon trying to get to work was stormed by thugs wielding bricks. He struggled to get his car keys out of his pocket but managed to drive off just in time.
Doctors say the hospital, with more than 450 beds, is one of the “most functional hospitals” in the North West because it has many specialists and registrars in training .
The hospital buys gloves, medicines and syringes privately to avoid stock-outs because a strike at the provincial supply depot has prevented North West clinics and hospitals from accessing medicines. Hospitals in the province have run out of gloves, syringes and feeding tubes for patients who cannot eat.
Members of the trade union Nehawu are striking to demand an end to outsourcing in the health sector, and for vacancies to be filled. It also wants overtime pay that is outstanding. The union has disrupted the supply of drugs since February.
Doctors on Wednesday were so concerned about patients that they insisted on using a private helicopter service to fly three doctors, some nurses and a pharmacist into Tshepong hospital in a township outside Klerksdorp. But during its third trip the helicopter was prevented from landing by striking workers who placed chairs on the helipad and threw stones at the helicopter.
“We will worry about the cost of the helicopter later. We needed to help patients,” said Ebrahim Veriava, a specialist physician at the hospital.
“We just care about the patients, not politics,” said an angry Alastair Calver, a specialist internist who was denied entry into the hospital by “tsostis” who asked him to pay R20 to drive inside. He said those preventing access to the hospital were criminals who did not appear to be associated with any union.
Calver had arrived earlier than normal because he had been told there would be unrest. He had to leave and was only allowed back in around lunchtime.
“A hospital is [supposed to be] a safe place,” said Calver.
After doctors arrived by helicopter in the morning, protesters banged on windows and entered the hospital to chase out nurses who had managed to get to work. The hospital was left with five doctors and no nurses.
A doctor, who did not want to be named, said he had run through the hospital, trying to make sure patients were given water, new drips and access to medicines. Patients who could walk had to fetch water for patients that were bedridden.
“Patients served patients,” said the doctor.
Calver and Ebrahim Veriava, who heard that unrest had been planned, wrote a letter on Tuesday from concerned doctors of the North West calling for calm in hospitals.
Veriava said doctors had taken the Hippocratic Oath and had to speak out to protect patients.
“We are speaking for the indigent and silent majority. Why should they suffer when the union issues have no bearing on them?” said Calver.
“We were predicting disruption,” said Veriava. It was well known that Tshepong hospital had continued to function while other hospitals across the province where being affected by the strike, he said.
One man with a gunshot wound to the neck was admitted to casualty in the morning. He was not seen for a few hours and passed away. Veriava said because the patient wasn’t assessed, doctors couldn’t know if he would have survived if he had received more prompt medical care.
“We can’t say either way.”
All 17 clinics in the Klerksdorp, Stilfontein, and Orkney area were shut down on Wednesday by strikers. Veriava said patients who cannot access medicine will die or develop drug resistant TB or drug resistant HIV.
All 100 patients who came to the outpatient clinic at Tshepong hospital for an appointment for serious illnesses were turned away.
The father of one of the doctors – who has kidney failure – was denied dialysis at the hospital because it was shut. He will only get the life-saving treatment tomorrow “if it is safe”.
Veriava said patients could die without treatment or chronic medication.
Nurses have suggested that strikers are expected to be back at the hospital on Thursday morning.
The township Jouberton near the hospital was tense, with remnants of burning tyres and bricks and rocks littering the road. On Wednesday afternoon there was no police presence.