The good and bad of state health

Khanyi Ndabeni

AN injured teenage boy lies on a wooden bench in a busy corridor as a nurse hooks his drip to a door handle. This is one of the first scenes that greets The Herald during an unannounced informal inspection of Nelson Mandela Bay’s four state hospitals.

Filling the rest of the trauma unit reception at Dora Nginza Hospital that Saturday night were throngs of bloodied and bandaged patients, all vying to be seen by no more than four nurses, while others, asleep out of sheer exhaustion, had been waiting for up to 20 hours.

A five-week investigation found that the Bay’s four major state hospitals were often short of beds, with too few specialists and nurses to tend to the long queues of patients waiting for urgent attention. In several cases The Herald found patients needing urgent attention – but who were not considered “death cases” – waiting up to 20 hours to be seen, let alone treated, by a physician.

Several impromptu visits to PE Provincial, Livingstone, Dora Nginza and Uitenhage Provincial at times found waiting areas converted into make-shift wards with bandaged patients, lying on chairs and stretchers, filling the corridors.

Of the four, Dora Nginza, which deals with the most generalised surgeries, was found to be in the worst condition, seemingly as a result of the sheer volume of patients needing treatment.

PE Provincial and Uitenhage Provincial, in contrast, were relatively clean and functioning without hiccups. While Uitenhage is considered a level 1 hospital – offering an emergency unit, obstetrics and gynaecology, general surgery and paediatrics – PE Provincial is a more-specialised level 3, dealing with oncology, urology and cardio-thoracic surgery, among others.

Both were found to be functioning well, although patients at PE Provincial remained confused over the recent closure of the trauma unit, now handled at Dora Nginza and Livingstone.

At Dora Nginza, scores of patients had been waiting for several hours, lying on dilapidated metal trolleys at the hospital’s emergency unit. A late-night weekend inspection found a shortage of beds, while some which were available lacked bedding and in other cases even mattresses.

Residents who accompanied the sick brought blankets from home, saying they were familiar with the conditions.

“We’ve been here since 4pm today and it is now after 10pm, but no one has come to see my mother,” said one woman, who asked not to be named. Moaning could be heard, but the four nurses present were too busy to attend to the patient.

On another visit, this time during the day, Mlungisi Toto explained how he had spent almost 20 hours waiting for a doctor.

“I came here suffering from a gall bladder infection. Since my arrival here, the nurses gave a drip. I’m in a queue to see a doctor. He has to admit me. I don’t know when he will come.”

At Livingstone, which last year opened a R254-million state-of- the-art emergency centre, some patients waited for about six hours or longer to be seen.

But unlike in the past when the casualty unit was overcrowded, The Herald found it clean and stocked with sufficient equipment to handle the case-load.

Some patients, left over from the previous night’s incidents, sat around waiting for their lung stab wounds to drain before they could go for surgery.

Nurses said that special waiting rooms equipped with Lazy- boy chairs and TV sets were proving a bit of a challenge as the half-drunk victims of physical assaults often enjoyed themselves so much sitting in the “lounge” they had to be asked to leave.

The benches in the new waiting room are empty and, despite predictions to the contrary, nobody has stolen the paintings or plants yet. Here and there a blood spatter on the floor serves as a reminder that, during the night, not everybody remembered during a crisis that the trauma unit was divided into blood- and non-blood injuries. Overnight there had clearly been blood injuries and the strong disinfectant used to clean up has already stained the floors, in use for less than a year.

The emergency surgery unit stands almost empty while technicians ensure the state-of-the- art equipment, including a full- body scanner, are operational.

In the nurses’ tearoom the duty nurses have lunch. “Because after four there will be chaos here.”

From 4pm the noise levels at the trauma room pick up. Ambulances arrive with ill people on stretchers and worried relatives.

While many said the service was good, Barbara Gouws of Newton Park disagreed. Involved in a car accident two years ago, she walks with a stick and goes to the hospital for check-ups.

“I waited almost 20 hours to have an operation. According to specialists, I should have had the operation within six hours of the accident. Today I can’t walk properly because of that slow service,” she said. “But when one either runs out of cash or has no medical aid, you are forced to wait (for specialist state treatment).”

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