Health MEC blames union strike for baby's death

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One month. That’s all the time she had with her precious baby girl before she died waiting for medical attention at a clinic. And the distraught young mom is putting the blame squarely on the ongoing health services strike in the North West.

According to a Drum magazine report, Tshireletso Mothibedi (19) is so devastated by daughter Tlotlanang’s death she tried to kill herself to escape the pain. Adding to her anguish is the belief it could’ve been prevented if her baby had been given the care she needed.

The report says Tlotlanang passed away last in March at the Gateway Clinic, which is affiliated to the Mahikeng Provincial Hospital. In an emotional interview she tells of her desperate race against time to get someone – anyone – to help her baby.

Little Tlotlanang had been born two months prematurely and spent the first month of her life in hospital. Tshireletso stayed there with her, feeding her and bonding with her. “I held her tiny hands. She was beautiful, like a flower,” she recalls. She was thrilled when nurses said the baby was strong enough to be taken home. “That was an experience I’ll never forget,” she says.

But a few weeks later Tlotlanang started showing signs of distress. She cried uncontrollably one night and “was struggling to breathe, her temperature was high and she could hardly open her eyes,” Tshireletso says. Panicking, she called her brother, Thabang, and her boyfriend, Gomolemo Mosiane, and they rushed the baby to the clinic nearest to their village of Signal Hill near Mahikeng.

The report says it was closed so they went to another clinic but it too was shut. Then they rushed to Mahikeng Provincial Hospital. Security guards told them they couldn’t go in because of the strike but told them to get help at the hospital’s clinic nearby. “We felt so helpless,” Thabang says. They kept checking the baby’s pulse, which was there but faint. She was no longer crying but her breathing had deteriorated.

“At Gateway Clinic a nurse checked the baby’s vital signs and said we must wait while she called a senior nurse from the consulting room,” he says. They were told to wait in another consulting room and Thabang asked for oxygen for Tlotlanang. The report says he was shocked when the nurse told them they weren’t doctors and didn’t know what needed to be done to the baby. “My sister stayed with the baby for over three hours without anyone attending to them,” he says. “We prayed and held her hand and told her she and the baby were going to be okay.” It was the worst three hours of Tshireletso’s life. “At some point I took her and placed her on my chest. I could still feel her heartbeat,” she says tearfully.

The report says when the nurse finally came to check on the baby, it was too late. “Take your baby home,” the nurse told Tshireletso. “She’s dead.” But, the report says, her baby’s death was just the beginning of the nightmare. “I asked about the procedure to keep the baby at the mortuary and was told there was a strike – I had to just take my baby and go home.” It was 3.45pm, the nurse said, and they had to leave as the clinic was closing at 4pm due to the strike. The family was forced to call a private undertaker.

The report says Tlotlanang was buried a few days later without an autopsy. Thabang says his sister was so overcome by grief she couldn’t eat and could barely function. “She even refused to drink water,” he says. Then she tried to kill herself. “I gathered all the pills I could find and tried drinking them,” she says. Thabang arrived just in time to stop her from doing serious harm to herself but Tshireletso is still suffering. She’s starting to believe she might never be blessed with children – she had a miscarriage last year and now this.”

The report says health services to communities in the North West had been brought to a halt by the ongoing strike. The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’Union (Nehawu), Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, Health & Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa and the Young Communist League of South Africa had promised to intensify the strike. Corruption in the health department is the main gripe the unions have.

“Over a period of time we have marched and held meetings with the management and political leaders wherein we raised alarm around the gigantic appetite displayed for corruption,” they said in a combined statement released on 14 April.

Meanwhile, North West Health MEC Magome Masike has placed the blame for Tlotlanang’s death on the strike. “Clearly the strike is responsible. This is a Nehawu case. “If people must lose their lives like this, it means our ego is bigger than that of the lives of our people,” Masike said, vowing to personally investigate the case.

North West Health Department spokesperson Tebogo Lekgethwane is quoted in the report as saying that his department is probing the matter. He says even though there were clinics affected by the strike, they weren’t entirely closed but opened at intervals and closed when nurses felt unsafe.

Gateway Clinic personnel refused to comment, referring the media to the MEC.

The report says Tshireletso wants answers but isn’t sure if they’ll bring her the closure she needs to move on.

Drum report

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