Woman’s hell in hospital

2009-09-08 00:00

THERE is no way that Richmond couple Linda and Bill Kelly can prove that Edendale hospital killed their 20-year-old daughter, but neither of them doubt that her five-day stay in Ward F4 did more harm than good.

Motor accident victim Tanith Kelly received “world class” treatment in the hospital’s casualty department where she was stabilised, and in ICU where she eventually died, say her parents.

But her treatment in ward F4 — a surgical ward where she was placed because no other beds were available — was shocking, they told The Witness last week.

Suffering from a punctured lung, broken rib, head wound and fractured hip, Tanith was, according to family and friends, frequently neglected, left unwashed and half naked. She was also verbally abused by the ward’s nursing staff who said she was “too heavy” to lift.

In an interview with The Witness last week, the Kellys painted a picture of an institution dotted with pockets of excellence, but ruled by petty authoritarianism and characterised in parts by negligence and a lack of compassion. Bill said the couple were constantly harassed by security personnel, outside and inside the hospital.

Linda said she was denied access to her traumatised and grieving daughter outside of the hospital’s limited visiting hours.

Blankets and books brought for Tanith were prohibited by nursing staff on the grounds of hygiene, although Linda says she watched other patients receiving blankets from family members. “We felt victimised,” she said.

The fatal accident happened in the late afternoon of August 1.

Tanith and Joanne Wilmot, who was regarded by Tanith as a sister, were travelling to Pietermaritzburg on the R56 to pick up a friend. “It was a cold and wet day,” recalls Linda. “Bill warned them the road would be bad; they promised to be careful.”

The car hit an oil or diesel spill and skidded. When Wilmot, who was driving, applied brakes, the car went into a spin, colliding with a minibus taxi.

Wilmot died on the scene. Three of the eight minibus passengers suffered non-fatal injuries and were taken, with Tanith, to Edendale hospital. Tanith, who was critical, but stable, was able to share with her mother the circumstances of the accident.

Attempts by the family and their local GP, Dr M. Motala, to have Tanith transferred to Grey’s Hospital came to nothing because no contact with the ward doctor could be established.

Bill said when he tried to phone the hospital, he was treated rudely by the ward sister. “She asked me who I was, why I was making trouble. She refused to give me the ward doctor’s name and put the phone down.

“When I phoned the hospital superinten­dent’s office, the PA was rude and abrupt and put the phone down on me. When I phoned back, I was accused of being a troublemaker,” said Bill. “When I eventually got the doctor’s cellphone number, and phoned him, he said he was in the operating theatre and couldn’t talk.”

According to Tanith’s sister, Melanie Ackerman, who visited from Durban, the nurses shouted at her sister, forcing her to get up, without explanation and despite her obvious pain and incapacity. She said toiletries brought by the family simply disappeared.

Linda recalled being present when a nurse refused to help Tanith use a bed pan, saying she was “too heavy”. “She said that Tanith must walk to the toilet. When I pointed out that she had a broken hip and had a drain in her lung, the nurse said Tanith was too heavy to lift.”

The following day, family friends reported finding Tanith lying in a wet bed because her catheter was leaking.

In an open letter to the regional hospital manager, Ackerman described the ward as “filthy”.

“... There were flies, and the smell of rotting blood, faeces and flesh hit me in the face,” she wrote.

Ackerman found Tanith naked three days after the accident.

Upon asking for water and a bowl so she could wash her sister, Ackerman said she was told by a nurse that she was “on tea”.

“When other people needed help, they were quick to help, but not my sister,” she wrote.

Ackerman said she was told by staff that her sister was “too lazy” and that there was nothing wrong with her.

“Why did the nurses have to be so abusive? Not only verbally, but physically when moving her, or putting her in a wheelchair to sit naked in the ward. Was it actually just about degrading and causing her embarrassment?” wrote Ackerman.

On her fifth day in the ward, Tanith slipped into a coma, out of which she never re-emerged.

“No one had even bothered to telephone to tell us she was unconscious,” said Linda, who came across her comatose daughter during a lunch-time visit.

The sister on duty said Tanith had suffered a stroke, but assured Linda that her daughter would be walking about in three days’ time. The nurse insisted on showing Linda an old newspaper cutting of a letter from a former patient complimenting the ward.

On Thursday evening, Tanith was moved to ICU, where, according to Linda, she received wonderful support.

“For the first time, Tan was clean, did not smell of urine and old blood and looked comfortable,” she said.

At 6.15 the following morning, an ICU doctor phoned the couple, as promised, and told them to come; their daughter was ailing.

At the main gates to the hospital, they were detained by security personnel who wanted to know their business. “We told them our daughter was dying,” said Linda. “They said they needed to check with the hospital. Bill just drove straight through the open gate.” Once inside the building, the couple say they had to be escorted to the wards by administrative staff because of ongoing harassment by security guards.

Finally in ICU, the couple watched as Tanith’s adrenaline ran out and, at 8.30 am on Friday, August 7, she died.

Tanith’s autopsy report states only that she died of multiple injuries. “The doctors were bamboozled. There was no septicaemia. There were blood clots in her lung, but these were deemed not large enough to kill her. Her brain simply shut down,” said Linda.

Following Tanith’s death, Linda was asked to identify the body. After waiting over half an hour in the mortuary before Tanith’s body was wheeled past her towards the fridges, she was told that the identification of accident victims is done at the state mortuary in Alexandra Road.

The next working day on which such identification could take place was the following Tuesday.

“We are not religious people and I knew Tanith was dead, but the thought of her lying in the hospital fridge for three to four days was difficult for me,” said Linda.

The sensitive and compassionate treatment she received from the state mortuary official placed her experience at Edendale into stark relief.

Back at Edendale, a family friend sent to collect Tanith’s personal belongings was apparently told to find the items herself, which she did: in a storeroom packed high with what seemed to be unclaimed bags and personal effects.

At the time of the accident, Tanith was saving up to travel and work in England in the new year. Being only informally employed at the time of the accident, she was not on medical aid.

“We’re not expecting retribution, or anything from the Department of Health,” Bill Kelly told The Witness.

A former civil servant like his wife, Bill said he was not “anti” government hospitals. “I know private hospitals are no utopia either. I simply wrote that letter because I want other people to know that Edendale’s ICU and Casualty can save your life, but the wards can kill you. Try to get a quick referral out of them.”

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