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‘Why couldn’t we have learned from the 2007 incident?’: Life Esidimeni doctor

18 October 2017 - 17:20 By Katharine Child
Life Esidimeni. File photo
Life Esidimeni. File photo
Image: Google Photo

The Life Esidimeni tragedy had a terrible precursor when 16 children were moved from a Life Esidimeni home and died in a Soweto NGO in 2007.

Those who returned alive were severely dehydrated.

A sobbing manager‚ Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa‚ who had worked at Life Esidimeni facilities‚ recalled the ten-year-old incident as he testified at the arbitration hearings held to examine the Life Esidimeni tragedy in which at least 141 adult psychiatric patients died.

A distressed Dr Mkhatshwa said: "Why couldn’t we have learnt from 2007 incident? Did we choose to just ignore it totally?"

In his testimony he said: "I reminded [the Gauteng department of health] of that [incident] and wanted to be sure of no repeat of the same."

"I was assured the plan was fail-proof‚" he said.

He warned the Gauteng health department not to move 1 712 adult psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni facilities into unknown NGOs and hospitals. "For some people in Life Esidimeni [homes] the only family they knew was us."

Dr Mkhatshwa said he asked then-Gauteng MEC for Health and Social Development Qedani Mahlangu not to go on with the project.

In one letter‚ Mahlangu apparently retorted that said she herself had slept under a stove when she was growing up‚ and so could these patients.

When he asked her what happened when mentally ill patients became aggressive‚ her response was‚ “They are put in chains."

Mkhatshwa explained how he fought with the Gauteng health department every step of the way to stop harm to patients.

The Life group asked for an extension of the move‚ that was to take place by June‚ until September‚ but was ignored.

Life Esidimeni offered to train staff from NGOs to look after patients‚ according to Dr Mkhatshwa. It wanted to know where the patients were going. It was never told who the NGOs were.

"We begged for that list‚" he recalled. "Where those users [patients] were going we had no clue."

Desperate to find a solution for patients‚ he even offered to sell Life Esidimeni facilities to the department over ten years so patients could have "continuity of care".

Life Esidimeni offered to renegotiate its contract with the department of health but was ignored.

During emotional testimony‚ Dr Mkhatshwa sobbed and families cried. One woman attending the arbitration collapsed and had to be leave supported by bystanders‚ sobbing and wailing. Dr Mkhatshwa recalled that when NGO staff arrived at his office without identification to collect patients for transfers‚ he said: "Get the hell out of here. This is not an auction. These are people."

In response to allegations that Life Esidimeni withheld medical records from the department‚ he said they discharged patients with medical summaries including most relevant medical information and all medication the patient needed.

Dr Mkhatshwa recalled that doctors wanted to quit because of the move‚ but he begged them to stay to discharge patients with proper medical summaries and scripts.

He said they had to keep patients’ medical records on file by law and that he offered the department the chance to copy the records‚ but that they didn’t take up the offer.

The move was so rushed that Life Esidimeni could not hand over detailed copies of records dating back years.

Two NGOs‚ where a total of 15 deaths happened‚ have been cleared of unlawful deaths by Judge Bernard Ngoepe because he found out that Life withheld medical records from the department.

Mkhatshwa disputed this and said it was not true. He said Life Esidimeni offered the Gauteng health department the chance to copy records but they never came.

Asked about the fact patients arrived without medicine‚ medial summaries and clothes at NGOs‚ he said he "wasn't surprised".

The move was done so fast they were given a list of patients one day and patients were moved the next day. Clothes‚ medicine‚ IDs and other documents were handed over to Gauteng health department officials.

He doesn't know what happened to it.

He asked how former Gauteng health head of department Dr Barney Selebano and other doctors in department had allowed this to happen.

"It was sad for me to see how clinicians could succumb to political pressure. It is bad when we forget the [Hippocratic] oath we took. They have wonderful credentials as clinicians. How could they not stand up and say‚ ‘Over my dead body‚ I will not do so such’?” he said.

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