Patients at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital brave  cold nights with no blankets 

Charlotte Maxeke hospital has been plagued by issues for years.

Scores of patients at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg have had to face the recent drop in temperatures without blankets. Senior doctors say a “severely dysfunctional” laundry service, coupled with faulty hospital heating, has left patients in the cold. 

Professor Barry Jacobson, head of clinical haematology at the hospital, says many of his patients are “lucky if they have sheets, let alone bedding or pillows – and this during the coldest week this winter. I’m told that hundreds if not thousands of blankets have been stolen so far this year.” 

Jacobson says that during COVID, a company donated three to four hundred blankets to his department – all of which have “disappeared in the wash”. 

No blankets, no sheets

The hospital’s clinical head of internal medicine, Dr Adam Mohammed, estimates 30% of his patients were at times this week, “shivering without blankets or sheets – in addition to the internal heating system functioning as erratically as it has for two to three years now.

“The wards are still ice cold. You’re looking at an ice-cold week with ward-temperatures highly inappropriate for patient care, especially those with immunity challenges.” 

Johannesburg, like many other parts of the country, has seen temperatures drop into the single digits, especially overnight.  

“When the wards are warm there’s no issue. But clean blankets often arrive when a cold snap is over,” Mohammed says. 

“I did one ward round, and patients were either lying directly on mattress sheets or with blankets supplied by their families. Many didn’t have pillows. It’s not as much the lack of blankets or linen – it’s the laundry service. There’s no planning.”

He says there are “always excuses: not enough laundry staff, delays in transport, (the laundry is off site), there’s simply no system.” 

Bare hospital beds

Thembi Ngubane’s family brought blankets from home when she was hospitalised last week. (supplied)

One of the patients who brought her own blanket is Thembi Ngubane. The 78-year-old former Sophiatown evictee and factory worker, was admitted to Charlotte Maxeke hospital the day before the elections. She arrived to find her bed bare of linen or sheets. She immediately asked her family to bring linen and a thick blanket.

“On Wednesday they gave the patient next to me two sheets just after she was admitted. I told her to go and ask the nurses. She got up and walked to them and they managed to find her a blanket. The other four women in this ward got their hospital blankets on Wednesday. It’s cold here, especially with the rain – and there’s no heater here.” 

Ngubane says she and the patient opposite her had family-supplied blankets while the other four patients in the ward now had hospital-supplied blankets. 

“We as people, our hearts are different. Some nurses are fine, others not so nice – they find patients a bother. The doctors however are excellent, they listen to you carefully and take my bloods every day. They’re amazing,” she says, adding that her recovery has been remarkable due to diligent treatment.

Mohammed and his colleagues plan to raise funds to buy a washing machine for each ward as an interim solution, having “given up” on the hospital administration solving the problem.

‘No person without a blanket’

At first the CEO of the hospital, Gladys Bagoshi, expressed shock and surprise at the claims, saying it was the first she’d heard of a lack of or theft of blankets. She promised to “investigate immediately”.

She later called this journalist back, saying she’d spoken to the matron in the internal medicine department who confirmed “a bit of a delay in delivery of blankets, but they are delivering. No person is without a blanket,” she adds.

“One ward had a bit of a challenge with sheets only, but they arrived. If there were no blankets I would have known. The laundry is outside the facility, and I know they work overtime. This is surprising but I will investigate all claims fully – maybe there is something I don’t know.”

As for the 43-year-old hospital heating system, she says there was ongoing years-long incremental repair, planned around the more vulnerable patients.

“Every year we do an area and it’s informed by clinical decisions. That’s the plan and, yes, there are areas we’ve not reached yet,” she admits. 

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Dr Aslam Dasoo, convenor of the Progressive Health Forum, a health advocacy network, says the ongoing hospital saga illustrated the failure of the provincial health department “to properly manage even the most elementary functions”.

“For this to happen in the most important and most industrialised province with the most comprehensive set of healthcare services anywhere on the continent is unforgivable,” he adds.

The crux of the problem, says Dasoo, “an MEC utterly incapable of managing this complex portfolio and who repeatedly puts incompetent people in charge. The department is full of administrators who somehow don’t understand the true function of a hospital resulting in drug and blood stockouts, staffing crises and infrastructure woes. The Gauteng Department of Health is an abject failure.”

He says the hospital CEO should be ashamed to not understand or be aware of the situation “when senior clinicians can tell you that for nothing”.

With an annual national health budget of R848 billion over the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework, 40% of which was compromised by maladministration and theft, “they also have the gall to cut posts that were budgeted for,” Dasoo adds.  

Compounding problems

Charlotte Maxeke hospital has been plagued by issues for years. 

Jacobson says the April 2021 fire had rendered one underground parking floor formerly allocated to patients and their families structurally unsound. As a result, patients must walk up to a kilometre to get to the hospital. 

“Money has been allocated three times to fix that patient parking lot and each time it has vanished into thin air,” he says. 

Jacobson adds that a computer system set up for the ICU had “disappeared”.

The 2021 arson-induced fire in a storage room reduced hospital space by over 20%, doctors had been under greater pressure than usual. Patient numbers had been restored to pre-fire levels after the hospital was originally shut down. Rebuilding is now expected to be complete in 2026. 

A registrar adds that hospital staff disillusionment and burnout are increasing. 

All additional claims were put to Bagoshi by early Wednesday evening. She promised that her communications manager would revert the following day. He did, promising a response by 10:30 on Friday. Health-e had yet to hear back by 11:30 on Friday.  – Health-e News

Author

  • Chris Bateman

    Chris Bateman is a veteran healthcare writer, having served as News Editor at the SA Medical Journal from 2000-2016, after which he went freelance.He has won seven Discovery Health annual journalism awards (Commentary and Analysis and Best Publication categories). His earlier career was in newspapers, mostly on the Cape Times, (17 years), where he reported daily from the townships during the late 80’s struggle years. In 1992 he was posted to London as Group Correspondent for the then Morning Group of Newspapers returning to help cover the 1994 elections after which he covered the Western Cape and national legislatures. He had short stint in radio and television. A fluent Nguni speaker, he grew up in deep rural KwaZulu Natal. See www.thrive2write.co.za

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