Scarred for life: my mom’s hell in state hospital after breast surgery

By Pieter van Zyl
17 February 2017

“She said she’d rather die than go back."

WARNING: Contains graphic images that might upset sensitive viewers 

“She said she’d rather die than go back to that hospital.”

These are the words of Natasha Erasmus, daughter of Reinette Erasmus (49), whose chest area was left badly damaged during reconstructive surgery in a state hospital. She had to have a double mastectomy because of breast cancer. Thereafter, she decided to save up to have her breasts reconstructed.

But the decision became a nightmare for Reinette. “My mother’s been crying every day since November,” says Natasha from Witbank, Mpumalanga, where Reinette is receiving care until she can be examined at a different hospital.

“She's relying on pain medication,” adds Natasha – but the psychological scars are the most painful.

“Where her left breast was, her ribs are visible,” says Natasha over the phone, her voice betraying the trauma she's experiencing.

In August 2014 both Reinette and her mother, Maryna van der Heyde (67), were diagnosed with breast cancer. And just a week after Reinette’s diagnosis her father, Batie van der Heyde (67), lost his fight to lung cancer.

Reinette became depressed and struggled to cope. To make herself feel better, she started saving for the reconstruction surgery, which she underwent in November last year.

“In that hospital my mother was lying in her own blood and urine,” says Natasha. “No person should be treated that way.”

Her parents didn't belong to a medical aid at the time and they had to sell their house to pay for a double mastectomy, says Natasha. The mastectomy was urgent, as Reinette suffered form an aggressive form of breast cancer.

“My mother was always impeccably turned out. She cared for herself and took pride in her appearance. After the mastectomy she suffered from low self-esteem because she felt scarred. She really wanted to do the breast reconstruction,” Natasha says.

She saved for months before she could afford her implants.

In November she went for the double breast reconstruction. The left latissimus dorsi muscle – the larger muscle on the upper back – was used to create the flaps for the two breasts. Due to radiation damage the left breast reconstruction was a failure, Natasha says.

Necrosis (the death of cells or tissue) kicked in and Reinette’s left breast started turning black. She was apparently taken back into the operating room a week after doctors first saw the necrosis, where the dead skin was removed and the skin was pulled together.

PHOTO: Supplied PHOTO: Supplied

After this she contracted the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria and for four weeks she struggled with vac machine (which help wounds to heal faster), ointment and bandages…

“Then there isn’t a vac machine available, and then she can’t go to theatre for debridement because there isn’t space for her. The list goes on and on,” Natasha says, describing all the trials her mom had to go through.

PHOTO: Supplied PHOTO: Supplied

It's suspected the necrosis set in because the wound was reportedly stitched closed and the skin stretched. But due to radiation, which can make the skin stiff and damage blood vessels, all the blood flow was cut off. “Within a day it was dead. Everything turned black. By that time she was too weak to be anaesthetized and they had to loosen the stitches and cut away the dead skin while she was awake… She's emotionally broken.”

PHOTO: Supplied PHOTO: Supplied

Natasha has since contacted a surgeon, who told her that a plastic surgeon could help now. “But we don’t have the money. Because her blood vessels are so badly damaged by the radiation, a normal transplant isn’t going to work. So the skin won’t be able to survive…”

A surgeon in Cape Town has agreed to operate on Reinette free of charge but the family would have to pay for hospitalisation.

“All that she wants is to be pain-free and have a healthy chest area again,” Natasha says. “She’s not even interested in reconstruction anymore.”

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