Health ‘delaying case’

2016-05-20 12:20
Isabella Smith (84) describes the burning pain she experienced after being given a drink of Formalin in Grey’s Hospital after an operation.

Isabella Smith (84) describes the burning pain she experienced after being given a drink of Formalin in Grey’s Hospital after an operation. (Ian Carbutt, The Witness)

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Pietermaritzburg - “They are waiting for me to die.”

Those were the despondent words of Pietermaritzburg resident Isabella Smith (84) on Thursday after another bid to settle her medical negligence claim against Grey’s Hospital failed.

Smith is suing KZN health authorities for damages she suffered when an anaesthetist at Grey’s allegedly gave her a container with Formalin to drink, instead of water, shortly after her knee replacement operation on May 5, 2010.

Speaking to The Witness at the office of her attorney, Siva Chetty, yesterday, Smith said the incident ruined her life.

Instead of spending just three days in hospital to recover from her knee replacement operation, her hospital stay was extended to close to six weeks, she said. Unable to eat, she lost a massive 27 kg in that time.

She also developed a severe nose bleed that lasted for more than a month.

According to Smith, she still cannot eat normal food and her diet consists mainly of “bananas and soup or watery food”. She can no longer socialise or eat out at restaurants as she becomes violently ill if she tries to eat ordinary meals.

“I also get terrible nightmares and I scream at night,” she added.

Chetty told The Witness that experts have diagnosed Smith as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder related to her Formalin ordeal.

Describing what happened to her, Smith said an epidural was administered before the operation. Afterwards, as she was being wheeled to a recovery room, she was thirsty and asked for water. The young female anaesthetist handed her a container and Smith took a “gulp”.

“I felt this burning like fire … I started screaming, ‘I am burning, I am burning’,” said Smith. She said the burning sensation spread through her mouth, nose and throat and down into her stomach. “Suddenly there were about five doctors around me … I heard one of them say ‘They gave her Formalin’,” she said.

Smith said another doctor gave her charcoal to drink to counteract the poison in her system.

“All the time I was burning and I was vomiting. I was put on a drip.”

Chetty said Formalin is used to preserve body parts and specimens, is very toxic and should have been clearly marked. In addition, experts say Smith should not have even been offered water after her surgery; rather, she should have been given only ice or had her mouth swabbed to relieve the dryness.

He said the trial was due to start on Monday, but was delayed until Wednesday due to the unavailability of Judge Graham Lopes, who had urged the parties to settle the claim.

The extensive talks culminated in a “ridiculously low” offer being made by the department on Wednesday night, he said. “They knew full well that this offer would be rejected because we had already rejected it before.”

He said the department seemed intent on “wasting taxpayers’ money” by continuing to defend the claim, even though notes written by the state’s own doctors and other hospital records clearly show that Smith was given Formalin “in error” and was treated for this. “Yet in their papers they deny she was given Formalin,” he said.

“The matter has been adjourned numerous times already and come before many different judges. Five different advocates have dealt with the case on behalf of the state [KZN Health],” he said.

Chetty, whose firm is carrying the legal costs on behalf of Smith (whose daughter in Canada has assisted with funding for some of the expert reports), said the costs of the litigation continue to soar way beyond the initial claim.

This week alone the cost of the seven experts who were available to testify would run to R100 000, The Witness was told.

Smith’s legal costs for this week alone could be in the region of R150 000.

She believes the department is waiting for her to die so that they don’t have to pay her out. She said she felt extremely upset when it was suggested in legal papers there may have been “contributory negligence” on her part when she drank Formalin.

“How I could have got up after a knee replacement and got myself a glass of Formalin to drink?” she asked angrily.

Chetty said it was sad that there appeared to be no sympathy on the part of the authorities for Smith’s plight. “She is an elderly person and she needs to be compensated for what she has gone through,” he said.

The lawyers are due to meet with KZN Judge President Achmat Jappie on Monday to discuss potential dates on which the trial can proceed.

If all the medical litigation cases the KZN department of health faces were to succeed, the provincial government would sink.

That’s according to KZN Premier Senzo Mchunu, who yesterday raised his concerns over the enormous amount of medical litigation costs in KZN.

A statement from the KZN health department yesterday said Mchunu told the management of hospitals and Community Health Care institutions that they must work towards curbing the rising rate of medico-legal claims.

The heads of all health institutions were also addressed by retired KZN Judge President Chiman Patel, former KZN Health Department Head Professor Ronald Green Thompson and representatives of the legal fraternity.

Mchunu told the CEOs that whatever happens in their institutions happens under their watch. He said CEOs and managers are appointed to ensure that there is always compliance with set standards as well as adherence to stipulated codes and ethics. He said everybody deserves professional, efficient and quality health care regardless of race, age, gender and place of residence.

CEOs were told they need to find ways to avoid and prevent adverse incidents; communicate better with affected patients and their families; and learn how best to defend cases.

The statement said most of the medico-legal cases are based in the fields of obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, surgery and orthopaedics.

The issue of good and proper record-keeping was emphasised and it was also proposed that there be a structured reporting mechanism for all adverse incidents and that these be brought to the attention of the Head of Department as well as the Legal Services Unit.

The statement said the CEOs are to preside on the task teams that look at these suspected adverse incidents and are expected to work together with their medical managers, nursing managers and quality assurance managers in reviewing cases.

MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo said all healthcare professionals had a duty to uphold the highest possible healthcare standards and must understand the consequences of their actions and the ever-present possibility of litigation.

“While practising medicine, they must be aware that the patient in front of you could be the one that will take you to court,” he said.

Dhlomo said hospital CEOs will now have to attend perinatal and maternal review meetings as part of their mandatory employment performance assessments.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  health  |  court

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