Dhlomo sticks to story

2012-11-30 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo’s helicopter ride stirred up a storm during yesterday’s legislature debate on the debacle.

The DA’s Mark Steele, who had called for Dhlomo’s resignation, now says he can stay on as MEC. However, the IFP hopes that what was presented in the legislature remains the final version. The party believes that the issue must still be investigated by the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

Dhlomo’s helicopter saga started three weeks ago with media reports that he had commandeered an emergency services chopper needed to airlift an accident victim.

Steele told the MEC that he could have avoided a public relations nightmare if only he had taken the public into his confidence after the issue blew up in the press.

Dhlomo’s explanation brought to light another anomaly in South Africa’s health system. The patient, 15-year-old Asheen Maharaj, who was injured in the car accident, was not taken by private ambulance to the Hillcrest Hospital just two kilometres away.

Thee ambulance passed six other hospitals in the 28 km to the state Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital. Asheen was later declared brain dead. Dhlomo said some of these hospitals were as well equipped as Luthuli.

This raised the issue of hospitals requiring medical aid and ignoring a patient’s constitutional right not to be refused emergency medical attention.

By last Sunday, the MEC appeared to be in a tight spot after the Sunday Tribune called his bluff. It said he had not commandeered the chopper to quell community unrest over a health care worker allegedly raping a schoolgirl as originally explained.

The MEC had in fact used the chopper to get to a funeral, it said. Yesterday, Dhlomo stuck to his story. He said that the contract with Red Cross Air Emergency Services allowed for 30 hours of free flying time as well as use for other purposes that were non-medical, but health-related.

Dhlomo said on October 26 he received a call from the mayor of Hlabisa, who phoned in his mayoral capacity, as well as that of principal of the local high school and hospital board chairperson.

The mayor raised a number of serious concerns. The MEC said he visited Hlabisa and met the mayor and the police, about young schoolgirls drinking at the hospital residence, encouraged by health care workers.

One had been arrested for allegedly raping a schoolgirl. It was agreed that Dhlomo would address the agitated community.

Later he was informed of a community gathering on Saturday, November 3. As he could only leave Durban at 10.30 am, the department arranged for a helicopter.

The MEC said as the community was gathered for the funeral of Zacharia Zungu, the husband of Hlabisa Hospital manager Dawn Zungu, he had the opportunity to address them there. Those who spoke to the media had not reported what he said at the funeral.

“I addressed the community mostly on this matter.” At no time did the pilot receive calls about an emergency. Dhlomo said he had used the helicopter several times before.

In any case, the use of helicopters by state paramedics to transport patients from accidents was reserved for areas in KZN that posed a topographical challenge.

Dhlomo said the rule for urban areas with short distances to hospitals, was that helicopters would only be used if there was heavy traffic that might delay the ambulance.

There was no heavy traffic on the day in question and that the ambulances on the ground were as equipped as the helicopters.

The ACDP’s Jo-Ann Downs blamed health officials for not dealing with the matter properly, thereby creating a PR nightmare.

The real issue that needed to be investigated was that it was unconscionable for the critically ill, no matter what their medical aid status, not to be treated at the nearest hospital.

Dhlomo’s last words were for the late Asheen’s family. He apologised that the family’s tragedy had been “opportunistically used” to portray his actions as immoral and illegal.

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