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'The situation became chaotic': Hillbrow doctor's day of stab wounds and rubber bullets

'We started hearing gunshots. Patients started piling in one after the other,' said Dr Suhayl Essa, who works in the emergency room of the Hillbrow community health centre

13 July 2021 - 06:00 By paul ash

Mobs of looters overran the Pan Africa Mall in Alexandra, Gauteng on July 12 2021.

Sunday started off as a normal day for Suhayl Essa. The emergency room doctor started his shift at the Hillbrow community health centre at 8am.

“There were a few patients who had a few fights the night before — I don't know where they got the alcohol from — and we had one or two suspected Covid patients,” he said.

By midday, however, patients began streaming into the clinic, which operates as a first-line centre for trauma cases. The patients are either stitched-up there or transferred to other hospitals if they needed to be admitted.

“We were seeing stuff on social media and there were mobs running in every direction around the clinic,” he said. “Then we started hearing gunshots. Patients started piling in one after the other.”

Two of those patients are each likely to lose an eye after being injured by rubber bullets, he said.

“They seem to have been innocent bystanders,” he said. “So it's quite hectic.”

Essa’s shift lasted nearly 14 hours as the doctor who was supposed to relieve him was too scared to come in and was deployed to Helen Joseph hospital instead.

As the situation worsened during the day, it was decided the patients would be safer at Helen Joseph hospital and preparations were made to move them.

With just two doctors in the clinic, one of whom would have to go with the patients, resources were strained to breaking point.

Essa volunteered to remain on duty at the clinic.

“The situation became quite chaotic even inside the clinic. There’s a whole lot of drunk people, you don't know if they are involved in the riots. They were shot with rubber bullets,” he said.

Now it's just complete riots and people taking advantage of the situation
Dr Suhayl Essa

People became increasingly violent when they were not seen to immediately, he said.

As the day continued, Essa noticed injured people coming in after apparent xenophobic attacks.

“People were saying they would get a knock on the door and as they go to open, someone is there with a knife.”

What might have started as a political protest had descended into anarchy, he said.

“Now it's just complete riots and people taking advantage of the situation.”

The doctor noted that it was difficult to separate fact from fiction. One patient came in, accompanied by a group of drunk friends, saying he had been hit by a car and dragged.

“I was suspicious [of his claim]. But the injuries were vicious,” he said.

The tension rose inside the clinic to the point that the police eventually had to arrest people who were instigating violence inside the clinic itself as well as detain people suspected of taking part in the arson and looting.

Essa estimated he and his two colleagues treated as many as 90 people during the day, far more than the usual average for a weekend.

“Even on our busiest nights, that's not what we’re used to.”

During the day, Essa had to deal with the family of a man who, in a suspected xenophobic attack, had been stabbed in the neck and chest.

“His whole family rushed to bring him in but by the time he got there he was already gone.”

Essa and his colleagues were unable to resuscitate the man and had to break the news to the family.

“They couldn't accept it,” he said. “One of the brothers — who was intoxicated — got vicious. He started blaming me ... wanted to see his brother. He came in and was pushing people out of the way, and then other patients started fighting with him.”

Essa said he and his fellow doctors had treated at least 10 gunshot wounds caused by live ammunition, as well as a baby who had been hit by a rubber bullet while in its mother’s arms.

The doctor, who has been in the front-line of every wave of Covid-19, said the violence coming as SA grapples with a third wave of infections was making the situation even worse.

When the time came to move the patients to Helen Joseph, the ambulance services said they could not come to Hillbrow to collect them.

“When they finally evacuated the entire facility they did so with an armoured ambulance,” he said.

“I honestly felt like we were at war. A stitch, a bandage there, compress someone’s open head wound that’s gaping ... it truly was like that.”

Essa said he hoped he would be able to take some urgently needed leave soon.

“They said we could not take leave in July because of the third wave. And now this.”



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