Mother left to die

Estelle Ellis

FOR several days Sylvia Witbooi lay slowly dying in Uitenhage Provincial Hospital, while her desperate family tried to clean her stinking wound and medical staff “did nothing” as she steadily succumbed to sepsis of the abdomen.

Three years later, after continued legal manoeuvring and only days before the case was due to go before the Port Elizabeth High Court, the Department of Health agreed this week to settle her family’s lawsuit for close to R700 000.

After analysing the care Witbooi, 44, had received at the hospital, specialist surgeon  Brian Warren said in a court affidavit that Sylvia “was allowed to die of sepsis without anyone being particularly concerned”.

She left behind a heartbroken husband and four children – the youngest only six years old.

Yet three years later, nobody has been disciplined or held liable. This week’s settlement does not mean justice for Uitenhage resident Gert Witbooi and his family. What they really want is for someone to be held responsible.

“The nurses and doctors left my wife to die and they did nothing,” Witbooi said.

Despite extensive inquiries by The Herald, no record of any inquest could be found, even though it is a legal requirement. Department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo merely said he did not comment on court cases.

Witbooi’s three-year legal fight to find justice for his dead wife has left him  shattered.
Painfully thin, obviously depressed, the quiet man is reluctant to talk about the death of his beloved wife, saying it makes him very sad.

Sylvia came from Cradock and met her husband-to-be in Uitenhage. They were together for seven years before they married. Sylvia looked after their children  and Gert worked as a cook at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

Then, in January 2008, Sylvia went to the clinic for treatment for three gall-stones. “They said she had to have an operation.

“Shortly after the operation on January 28, she said she was feeling fine. My wife was a strong, healthy person.”

Sylvia was discharged from hospital on February 1. A few days later she became very ill.

 “I came home from work and my wife’s stomach was this big,” he said clasping his hands in front of him. He took her back to hospital and she had explorative surgery three days later.

Sylvia never recovered. It was later established that during the gall-bladder operation the surgeon had nicked her colon and faecal matter was slowly leaking into her body, infecting everything in its way.

On February 20, she was admitted to a general ward, where her family had to clean her wound and help her when she had wet the bed.

“Sometimes she didn’t smell nice, but the nurses did nothing. My little one once turned away when he saw his mother, but I told him: ‘You can’t run away now. Your mother needs us. She has only us’. Every time we left she begged us to stay.”

On March 6, 2008, Sylvia Witbooi died, leaving her husband a very angry man. He was so incensed death that he initially tried to lay a charge of murder with the Uitenhage police. He was referred to medical malpractice attorney Francois Swanepoel.

He sued the department for substantial damages, triggering a protracted legal battle which became so fiery  the state attorney’s office took the highly unusual step of withdrawing its services from the Eastern Cape Department of Health after officials refused to settle the matter.

The Department of Health initially claimed Sylvia had died of a blood clot in her lung – even though a post-mortem clearly showed she had died of untreated sepsis in her abdomen.

Swanepoel then had the superintendent-general of the department summoned to court to explain why the case was not being settled. Shortly after this summons was issued, the state attorneys’ mandate was restored and the matter settled.

Warren, a specialist surgeon at Tygerberg Medical School, said in papers before court that the fact  Sylvia had managed to survive for two weeks after she developed severe, untreated sepsis was “a tribute to the resilience of the human body”.

A post-mortem revealed she had a perforated colon and severe sepsis in her abdomen and the start of pneumonia.

Warren said the original gallbladder operation had taken only 25 minutes and this  was “unusually short” even though the operation  “could not have been difficult by any stretch of the imagination”.

He suggested  the speed at which the operation had been performed was indicative of conduct which was “somewhat less than careful”.

Warren expressed surprise that the only person who had found signs that Sylvia’s wound was clearly severely infected was a dietician at the hospital.

Warren said there was no indication that anyone senior had come to see her.

Carefully holding the much- folded, treasured funeral letter of his wife and her identity document, Witbooi looked out the front door. “She was a beautiful person, always ready with a joke, always laughing. I sent a healthy person to hospital and they killed my wife.”


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