‘It’s chaos’: Doctors, nurses work in fear of their lives

Security measures at hospitals countrywide have been under the spotlight.
Emergency situation Security measures at hospitals countrywide have been under the spotlight.
Image: Gallo Images/City Press/Muntu Vilakazi

In 2011, Dr Senzosenkosi Mkhize, a newly qualified doctor, was stabbed to death by a patient in Middelburg Hospital in Mpumalanga.

Doctors staged marches and a memorial lecture, and the SA Medical Association (Sama) asked the health department to improve hospital security to protect staff.

But nine years later, a lack of hospital security remains an issue, says Sama member Dr Akhtar Hassain. 

He said that in 2011, after that incident, the doctors’ organisation asked the government for metal detectors and CCTV cameras at hospitals. It is still waiting.

A lack of security at hospitals made headlines again last week when a 24-year-old intern at Pelonomi Hospital in Bloemfontein bit off the tongue a man attempting to rape her. The hospital said it had improved security measures, but on Saturday morning a doctor was robbed at gunpoint at the same hospital. 

On Monday morning, the University of the Free State withdrew its interns from training at the Pelonomi Hospital but by late afternoon agreed to send them back after security measures had been improved.

“The decision to suspend the training of undergraduate students at the hospital came after the attempted rape of a medical intern last week, as well as the robbery of a medical officer in the parking area of the hospital over the weekend,” the university said on Monday.

One e-mail seen by Times Select says Pelonomi Hospital’s main gate is often open, security guards don’t watch the gate, and doctors do not feel safe.

But after discussions with key players during the course of Monday, new security measures were announced.

“Interventions in the security project plan include the installation of high-mast lights in the precinct of the hospital, reparation of the perimeter fence, security locks, and limiting access to the hospital and the hospital grounds from 8pm until 6am. A venue operation centre made up of SAPS, institutional security management, and the community policing forum will also be established at the hospital,” it said.

Sama asked doctors to e-mail concerns about safety.

One e-mail seen by Times Select says Pelonomi Hospital’s main gate is often open, security guards don’t watch the gate, and doctors do not feel safe. There had been calls for students and doctors to stop working at night.

Broken security gate

Dr Jeremy  O'Kennedy, chairperson of the Registrar’s Representative Council at the UFS, said the security was so lax , “it was just a matter of time before something happened”.

For instance, the keypad at the security gate, where the intern was sleeping when the attempted rape happened, had been broken for seven months.

“I can say, a hundred percent for the past two years, I have continuously raised security concerns with officials  and the health department.”

He said the main concern was that improvements to the security are maintained.

Free State health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi confirmed that the security gate leading to where doctors slept was broken and that CCTV cameras were not manned properly.

“We are aware that where the attempted rape incident happened, the padlock of the security gate leading to hallway … didn’t work,” he said.

“Sometimes security matters fall through the cracks . It is not reluctance on behalf of the health department . It has never been department’s policy not to replace locks.”

He said doctors walking at night and in dark parking lots were supposed to call security guards to accompany them.

“Everybody must feel safe. Doctors, nurses, porters, patients – and visitors to the hospital.”

Widespread problem

Hassain said the lack of adequate security at hospitals was a widespread problem.

“We have been going hospital to hospital and collecting information. So far, each hospital’s safety and security measure is inadequate.”

A Sama task team would visit Pelonomi Hospital on Tuesday to find out what happened.

Intern doctors are vulnerable, said Cassim Lekhoathi, general secretary of the Denosa nursing union.

When he worked as the KwaZulu-Natal union’s provincial secretary he frequently heard stories about drunk youngsters threatening nurses if they did not treat their friends before other patients.

He said that usually interns were tasked with walking long distances to take blood samples from casualty wards to the laboratory to request matching blood for a transfusion.

Denosa had been complaining for years about the lack of security at clinics and hospitals.

“It is broken record,” said Lekhoathi.

This weekend a nurse was assaulted by a patient in Motherwell in the Eastern Cape, he said.

When he worked as the KwaZulu-Natal union’s provincial secretary he frequently heard stories about drunk youngsters threatening nurses if they did not treat their friends before other patients.

“It’s chaos.”

Two years ago he had asked the KwaZulu-Natal health MEC to stop using female security guards at night because they were assaulted by people who jumped over hospital and clinic fences.

Other recent safety breaches at hospitals include:

  • A baby was kidnapped last week at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, but later found;
  • There was an attempted rape of a social worker at Johannesburg Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in 2018;
  • A video of a patient abusing a nurse and holding her hostage went viral in December;
  • A child was raped at Port Elizabeth’s Dora Nzinga Hospital in 2017;
  • In April,  a community health worker was raped while walking to the community she was going to help;
  • Three doctors were shot when heavily armed men burst into their residence at Letaba Hospital in Limpopo during a 2018 robbery.

Last month, the death of psychiatric patient on the roof at Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in Durban also made headlines.

Hassain said it is believed the patient wandered off, became stuck in the roof and later died.

“Where was the security ?” he asked. “They just stand at the entrance of hospital.”

University reaction was 'serious'

Lekhoathi praised the University of the Free State for withdrawing student doctors from training at the hospital.

“That is a serious action on the part of  the university. Maybe we nurses should think of withdrawing services when incidents happen.”

“It is the health department’s duty and responsibility to protect health workers.”

Lekhoathi said they wanted security guards in parking lots, wards and strategic places

“Patients are not safe either.

“We can not carry on like that. Nurses go to a workplace with the sole intention to provide a service and we must now look over our shoulders to see who will stab and rape us and all these things.”

National health spokesperson Popo Maja said the matter of safety at hospitals remained a priority.

“The issue of security at our facilities remains the priority of the ministry of health. The ministry is working closely with the ministry of police to ensure that our staff, patients and members of the public are and feel safe at our facilities,” Maja told Times Select.

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