Life Esidimeni: Untold consequences of trauma
Families of the 140-plus psychiatric patients who died after being moved from Life Esidimeni facilities to irregularly registered non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have suffered so much that some themselves are now dying.
Media reports blaming relatives for the Life Esidimeni deaths have upset families, who continue to suffer mentally and physically from the trauma. Since the controversial move followed by dozens of deaths with many patients still missing, two families have suffered another tragic loss.
These new deaths, it has been argued, are also a direct result of the stress of the tragedy and the traumatic loss of their loved ones.
“My mother’s last words were ‘I want to see that Qedani who killed my son!’,” said Maggie Mosiane. Her brother Caswell Mosiane was the sixth casualty of over 140 mental health care users who lost their lives as a result of the ill-conceived decision by the Gauteng Department of Health to terminate its contract with Life Esidimeni. It was a decision that saw 1711 mental healthcare users moved into unlawfully licensed NGOs. Former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu has been implicated as one of the government officials responsible for the deadly project.
Maggie’s mother, Yvonne Mosiane, died on November 23 2017 of heart failure.
“After Caswell died my mom got sick. She couldn’t walk, eat or talk properly and her diabetes got worse because of the stress,” said Maggie.
Body and mind not separate
Clinical psychologist Coralie Trotter, who testified at the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings that the treatment of mental health care users amounted to torture, said that the stress of Caswell’s death had a direct impact on Yvonne’s physiological health – destabilising her diabetic condition and ultimately leading to her death.
“The body and mind are not separate entities, that is an outdated notion,” she said. “An emotional trauma affects the chemistry and physiology of the body and can lead to sickness and death.”
Maggie herself is struggling physically from the double loss.
“Since I lost my mom I have had constant diarrhoea and I’m always nauseous, I keep asking myself what is happening to me,” she said.
Two weeks ago the Daily Sun published a column that opened with: “What responsibility are the family members of the Life Esidimeni patients taking for the deaths of their family members?” It accused families of “abandoning” their loved ones who were “simply dumped” in state institutions, implying a callous lack of love and care.
These remarks have upset many family members Health-e has spoken to who said they are still suffering from the consequences of the traumatic experience.
Broken heart syndrome
Christine Nxumalo lost her sister Virginia Machpelah at the infamous Precious Angels NGO in August 2016.
“People don’t know bad it was. It was absolute chaos trying to find my sister and many families struggled immensely going to NGOs trying to find their loved ones without answers,” she said.
“It was scary. The pain and fear we felt is something I would not wish on anyone.”
The family was dealt a second blow when Virginia’s daughter and Christine’s niece, Shanice Machpelah, died suddenly the very first day of the arbitration proceedings on October 9 last year.
“She was supposed to come with me that day but decided not to at the last minute,” remembered Christine. “She seemed normal when she woke up but a few hours later she leaned forward holding her knees saying she wanted water and to lie down.”
The family rushed her to a hospital in Midrand where she died soon afterwards. The family is still waiting for her post mortem results but they suspect she died of broken heart syndrome as a result of the traumatic circumstances under which she lost her mother.
Importance of counselling
Trotter said this is why counselling for the affected families is so important.
“The problem with trauma is the shock removes you from being present enough to process it. Through psychological counselling you’re trying equip and facilitate people to start processing the trauma. You’re trying to integrate the event into part of who you are rather than something that has happened to you,” she said. “The less able you are to process the emotions the more of an impact it is going to have on your entire body.”
Christine said that they tried to encourage Shanice to go for counselling but that she said “that she didn’t want to break down because she didn’t think she would be able to put herself back together again”.
Shanice had turned 21 the day before.
Referring to the Sunday Sun article Christine said that “for someone to so arrogantly say we didn’t care about our families is just shocking, they do not know our full story”. “We just thought we were getting over my sister’s death and then Shanice’s passing happened. We just didn’t see it coming. It was so painful. It still is.”
The final legal arguments were heard on Thursday and Friday where Section27, representing the majority of the bereaved families, argued for a total of R1.2 million to be paid by the state in compensation. A further R 500 000 has been requested on behalf of each family to be used to improve mental health services in the province. Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke has a month to make the final decision on the award. – Health-e News
An edited version of this story was published in the Saturday Star.