Woman fears hospital

2016-06-14 10:38
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 - Pietermaritzburg resident Isabella Smith (84) would rather die in her room than be admitted to a state hospital.

Smith said on Monday while testifying before Judge Graham Lopes in the Durban High Court in support of a R1 million lawsuit against the KZN Health Department for medical negligence.

Her claim arises from an incident when she was given formalin instead of water to drink following a knee replacement operation at Pietermaritzburg’s Grey’s Hospital on May 5, 2010.

While Smith initially sued for R425 000 in damages, her lawyers confirmed yesterday that they have notified the department they are amending the claim to just over R1 million based on expert reports.

In his opening address to court, Smith’s advocate Rocky Ramdass described as tragic and “lamentable” the history of the case, which dragged on for four years culminating in a failed attempt last month to settle the case.

“The salt being rubbed into the wound is the fact that we are dealing with an old lady who belongs to a vulnerable part of our population. This is not how the state ought to litigate,” he submitted.

Smith testified that she is a changed person since swallowing a cupful of formalin (a toxic liquid used for preserving body parts) thinking it was water.

She lost 23 kilograms in under six weeks, can no longer eat solid food of any sort and has lost her zest for life, becoming a recluse in her room. “I live on water, soup, [mashed] bananas and tea,” she said, adding that she had previously enjoyed her food including steak and curry.

She said she was given the liquid by an anaesthetist when she asked for something to drink after surgery. “I gulped it down and started screaming, ‘You are killing me’ … It was burning in my nose, mouth and down in my stomach,” she said.

Smith said a doctor gave her a bottle of charcoal and told her to drink it within an hour. She felt ill and nauseous and vomited repeatedly. She also suffered ongoing pain in her nose, chest, throat and stomach. “I complained but they did nothing,” she said.

The court was told her intended hospital stay of three days was extended for about five weeks.

Smith said she gave all her food away in hospital as she could not eat it, and she was put on a drip. She has not slept well since drinking formalin and still suffers from nightmares.

She also underwent a month of repeated hospital visits after being discharged from Grey’s for a severe nose bleed she believes was linked to her formalin ingestion.

Asked how she would feel about going back to hospital, in future, Smith declared: “No thank you. I am scared to go to hospital. If I get ill, I must rather die in my room.”

Smith vehemently rejected a suggestion by the department’s advocate Mergen Chetty that her only comment after she took a sip of formalin was to say it “did not taste right”.

“I beg your pardon … I didn’t take a sip. I gulped a whole cup and I started screaming,” Smith replied.

She alleged a nurse attending to another patient even told her to “keep quiet”.

Chetty said the state will also lead evidence that the formalin was contained in a medicine measure, and not a large cup, but Smith denied this.

Smith’s lifelong friend Carmen Erasmus told the court the formalin incident changed Smith’s personality. She used to be the “life and soul of a party”, ran a florist shop, was artistic and loved dancing. She also ate a lot.

Now she was a “bitter lady”, never came out of her room and was always anxious.

Erasmus said had received an urgent call to go to Smith on the day of her surgery. She found her in an agitated state, sweating profusely and she said she was given something to drink that had burnt her.

The following day, noticing that her friend’s face appeared “puffy”, a nurse told her that Smith had suffered a slight stroke, she said.

Erasmus, who visited Smith daily in hospital, said she only found out when she glanced through a medical file near her bed that she had been given formalin.

“A sister came along and closed the file and said, ‘How dare you look in that file?’” said Erasmus.

The case is continuing.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  health  |  court

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