Disabled doctor takes on hospital giant that fired her

21 January 2019 - 06:00 By TANYA FARBER
Dr Sarah Whitehead is taking Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town to the labour court after losing her job.
Dr Sarah Whitehead is taking Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town to the labour court after losing her job.
Image: Esa Alexander

Sarah Whitehead has overcome every challenge life has thrown at her, but now the doctor with a disability is facing her biggest battle.

The 33-year-old is taking hospital giant Life Healthcare to the labour court, accusing it of unfairly dismissing her from Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town.

Whitehead says she was fired last August after more than four years as a part-time doctor in the rehabilitation unit, where she worked with disabled patients.

Ironically, she says, she was fired on the basis of her disability. Life human resources executive Chris Gouws told the Sunday Times: “She unfortunately could no longer respond in terms of the services the rehabilitation unit required.”

Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, where Dr Sarah Whitehead used to work.
Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, where Dr Sarah Whitehead used to work.
Image: Life Healthcare

Whitehead was diagnosed with developmental venous anomaly when she was in matric at Herschel Girls' High School in Cape Town.

“Three big words, I know,” she writes in her autobiography, “but simply put, it’s one large vein in my brain where there should be many small ones.”

The condition impairs her mobility and balance, and her symptoms worsened when she was at the University of Cape Town medical school.

“In the course of her final year she was really struggling and three weeks before her final exams, she was told she could write exams but not do an internship,” said Whitehead’s father, John.

The decision was eventually reversed and in 2011 she began her internship at Tygerberg Hospital, then moved to Groote Schuur.

“She was subjected to the most appalling prejudice by many of the medical people around her. It was very painful for her but she got through it, remained positive and constructive and was well-liked,” said her father.

For the past few years, she had dedicated herself to helping rehabilitate others, and uses a rollator - a three-wheeled walker - to get around.

In 2013, she took off six months for various forms of therapy, and in March 2014 she was employed as a locum doctor at Vincent Pallotti.

Her lawyer, Glyn Williams, said his instructions were that on August 27 last year, she was called into a meeting and told there were “concerns” about her ability to care for patients, and that “they would find someone else to perform her duties”.

Chris Gouws of Life Healthcare
Chris Gouws of Life Healthcare
Image: Life Healthcare

Whitehead was “shocked and profoundly distressed” and two days later, received a “letter of termination”.

Gouws told the Sunday Times that “in the latter part of 2018, discussions were held with her regarding ending her locum service”. He said Whitehead was an independent contractor and that her appointment as such was “lawfully terminated”.

Williams says this is untrue, and that she was a part-time permanent employee. “She complies with the very definition of permanent employee under the Labour Relations Act,” he said.

Williams said until last August there was never a single complaint, disciplinary hearing or inquiry into her alleged incapacity. The only question that arose was whether she should perform her duties in a wheelchair rather than using a rollator.

Gouws said: “We regret that Dr Whitehead was unable to provide the level of services we require and do not believe that terminating her association with the company was unfair or discriminatory. We always act in the best interest of our patients, doctors and employees according to our values, vision and purpose.”

The case is due to be heard in the labour court in June.


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