Hospital labour unions have warned that Livingstone Hospital’s accident and emergency unit is no longer safe for patients, doctors or staff due to psychiatric patients running amok.
A spokesperson for three labour unions whose members work in the unit said yesterday there were more than 20 psychiatric patients running around unmanaged, posing a risk to those who came into contact with them.
An emergency meeting was held with hospital management yesterday afternoon after nurses and porters started protesting earlier in the day over the absence of a specialist mental unit at the hospital.
The provincial Health Department has confirmed that incidents involving psychiatric patients have taken place at the hospital this week.
Speaking on behalf of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union and the Hospital Personnel Trade Union of South Africa, Sister Vongiwe Vava said the public didn’t know what was going on at the unit.
“Our fear is that our patients seeking help for medical emergencies are in grave danger. We can’t protect them or others. We can’t even protect the psychiatric patients,” Vava said.
“Psychiatric patients are roaming around the unit, fighting other patients and nurses for food, and we don’t have strong enough drugs to give them.
“We are not closing the accident and emergency unit, but we are protesting. We can’t carry on like this.”
She said the assault on a nurse by one of the psychiatric patients on Wednesday was the last straw.
“It took two security guards to pull that man off her,” Vava said.
She said a security guard had also been assaulted by a psychiatric patient at the unit yesterday.
In the past four years there have been a number of incidents at Livingstone involving psychiatric patients.
In 2015, Roderick Madatt set himself alight in the casualty unit.
There have also been several suicides where psychiatric patients jumped out of windows.
Last year, nine psychiatric patients escaped from the unit.
Vava said they had, on any given day, about 20 to 30 psychiatric patients at the accident and emergency unit as the patients needed to get medical check-ups and tests before they could be referred to the psychiatric unit at Dora Nginza Hospital for 72 hours’ observation.
“Due to a shortage of beds they sometimes spend up to a week here. They sleep in the unit and in the passages. We take the trolleys that are supposed to be used for injured patients for them to sleep on.
“Because of patient-client confidentiality we can’t tell the other patients to be careful of them.
“They are acutely ill and psychotic. These patients pose a danger to everybody – staff and fellow patients. We have to sedate them, but we don’t have the right drugs.”
Vava said they had told management that the psychiatric patients were also being mismanaged in terms of the Mental Health Act as their treatment was significantly delayed.
“Most of them suffer from a drug-induced psychosis. They don’t receive adequate help so they come back every week or two.”
Vava said the biggest battleground in the unit had become the kitchen.
“It is like these psychiatric patients can never get enough food. They will fight anybody they see with food.
“We have tried to engage with our management, but the Department of Health is keeping quiet – they are not doing anything to help us.”
Eastern Cape Health Department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said a space for a dedicated acute mental health unit had been identified by the hospital, but it was up to management to liaise with the department to take the matter further. He confirmed the incidents this week but said the nurse who Vava said had been assaulted had merely been “manhandled”.
Upon investigation by Weekend Post, the shocking state of care in some of the rooms where these patients are housed was clear to see.
Rooms equipped to hold just two patients have up to four people in them.
Security guards are present, but a number of them are women, which could be problematic.
A union member said he was aware of incidents that had taken place involving staff members and some patients.
“In one instance, a doctor was attacked by a patient using a chair.”
A 50-year-old patient, who has been at the hospital for almost a week, said he did not feel safe at the hospital in view of these incidents. – Additional reporting by Amir Chetty