Guest Column

Dissecting bodies is not in my job description

2017-06-26 09:53
(File, Supplied)

(File, Supplied)

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Susan Erasmus

Some employees are quick to point out when something they are asked to do is not in their job description. But if you have been moaning about extra admin or coffee-making chores coming your way, spare a thought for the mortuary staff at the Gauteng Health Department: in between driving and cleaning duties, they have been dissecting bodies without being supervised.

It takes twelve years to train a pathologist, but it would appear that for the last eleven years, other workers, including cleaners and drivers, have been conducting unsupervised post-mortems for the Gauteng Health Department.

What it comes down to is that death certificates and court judgements from the last decade could be questioned. In short, some people may literally have got away with murder, while innocent people may be languishing in prison, convicted on evidence provided by someone who should have been washing cars, cleaning the kitchen, or operating the traffic boom. The mind boggles.

I cannot help but wonder if people who died from gunshot wounds, strangling or poisoning might have been listed as dying of natural causes, or vice versa. 

There are a few things in the report on this matter (Read the full report here) which struck me (or should I rather use the phrase “knocked me off my feet?):

• This has been happening for eleven years. You mean to tell me that in all that time, no one from official channels picked up that untrained staff members were doing this incredibly specialised job? So nobody ever scrutinised these reports, or questioned their contents – not even the courts?

• The chairperson of the health portfolio committee, Mary-Ann Dunjwa, has said that the untrained staff are now to be trained. So are they to be sent off the medical school for 12 years, then? It’s one thing assisting and observing a pathologist in action, and quite another taking over the job.

• It took eleven years for the staff to go on strike. If I am being paid as a driver or cleaner, you can be sure that I will not be tempted to partake in a little light dabbling with regards to performing autopsies. It is a grisly and tough job, not to speak of one that carries an enormous responsibility. Surely there should be some connection between what you do and what you get paid? 

• The staff did not have adequate protective clothing. I wonder how they got home after a bumper day of dissection? There are some places my mind does not want to go. This is one of them. (Margaret, can you do an extra shift? And by the way, don’t bother with the high heels. And it’s probably a good idea to bring a raincoat.)

• DA MP Patricia Kobane asked the following question: “How many people can come back and say, what if my autopsy was performed by one of these unqualified people? What if it was not genuine?" I am happy to be able to put her mind at rest – if your autopsy was performed by anyone, from a pathologist, to a cleaner, driver, or the Easter Bunny, you yourself will never be asking any questions about it ever again. But maybe relatives and lawyers will.

• “From just assisting, staff are now forced to do the entire autopsy’. I am not sure how you force someone to do an autopsy, especially if it is not in their job description. The annual KPA (key performance appraisal) must have been quite something in this department. Imagine trying to rate someone on their cleaning and driving abilities, and trying to ignore the fact that they spend half their days dissecting bodies, presumably against their will?

Some jobs you can pick up as you go along. Others you can’t. Doing post-mortems is not something you can fake until you make it, however clever you may be. Medical terminology is complicated, the human body is complicated, causes of death are complicated. Getting it wrong has huge consequences.

Finding a cause of death/reporting it incorrectly can mean cancellation of life insurance policies, a murder conviction, or letting a murderer get off scot-free.

I have been a medical journalist for 16 years. My medical knowledge is fair, but I would never in a million years presume to give someone a diagnosis or recommend treatment. I do not have the comprehensive knowledge and also have no medical training. The most I can do is point someone in the right direction where they should be able to find the information and treatment they are looking for.

But maybe if I go and work for the Gauteng Health Department, I can widen my scope considerably. Perhaps if I watch a few brain operations, I too can be let loose in the theatre. But will they at least give me scrubs?

- Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer and former deputy editor at Health24.

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