R3m damages for handicapped girl

A child who was left severely handicapped, both physically and mentally, due at least partly to the negligence of staff at two major provincial hospitals, will have her affairs managed by a curator after being paid out more than R3-million in damages.

The Grahamstown High Court has ruled that the little girl, who is now nine years old, had suffered permanent mental and physical deficits and would be incapable of ever managing her own affairs.

Her mother indicated to the court that she, too, did not feel qualified to manage and invest the money in a way to make it stretch to meet the medical and other needs of the child for her entire life.

The child, whom we will call Aphiwe, may not be identified due to her youth and disability.

The provincial health department took responsibility for some 25% of the damages – estimated at more than R12-million – and agreed to pay out R3-million.

Professor Johan Smith, a neonatal expert in the department of paediatrics and child health at Stellenbosch University, painted a dire picture of negligence in the examination, monitoring, management and treatment of the mother and child’s condition before, during and after the birth.

Aphiwe’s story says much about the woeful state of the provincial public health system.

Her saga began at Victoria Hospital in Alice, where an obstetric expert says the staff incorrectly plotted the size of the foetus in prenatal examinations and missed that she was severely growth restricted.

Aphiwe was just 1.7kg at birth, meaning her health was already severely compromised.

Further, Smith found that the staff at Victoria hospital inexplicably failed to pick up foetal distress during the birth.

To compound their error they then handed the minute and distressed baby straight into the care of her mother instead of putting her into an incubator. She was hypoglycaemic (had low blood sugar) but was not placed on a drip. Three days later mother and child were transferred to Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in an ambulance without oxygen and without a dextrose drip. She arrived blue in colour, gasping for air, floppy, hyperglycaemic and largely comatose. Her brain had been starved of oxygen. At CMH the machines that monitor gas in the bloodstream were all dysfunctional.

So, although the oxygen-starved infant was finally placed on a ventilator, her blood gas levels were not monitored. This, said Smith, resulted in over ventilation, causing her brain blood vessels to constrict and damage the brain further.

Smith described the debacle as a “cascade” of events that culminated in severe brain damage.

He attributed it to a systematic failure in the provision of reasonable and standard care at several levels.

Aphiwe is now a permanent quadriplegic who suffers from spastic cerebral palsy and cannot eat or take care of herself in any way.

Port Elizabeth attorney Morne Struwig, whose practice specialises in cases such as this, was appointed as the Curator Bonis to take care of the child’s financial affairs.

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