Helen Joseph doctor warns ‘patients will die’ as water crisis grows surgery backlog

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The Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg. Photo: Gallo Images
The Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg. Photo: Gallo Images
Gallo Images/Daily Sun/Lucky Morajane


Anxious and unsettled, a Johannesburg teenager is fraught with worry as a surgery to remove a mass between his ear and brain has been postponed indefinitely.

The 19-year-old was admitted to Helen Joseph Hospital on Sunday. His surgical procedure had been scheduled for Monday May 24. However, hours after being taken to theatre, the videography student was sent home, in the dark about when he’d have the critical surgery.

Speaking to City Press, his mother Fatima says: “They [hospital staff] said the surgeries have been cancelled due to the theatre backlog as a result of the water outages.”

An ear, nose and throat specialist is said to have reviewed the patient on Thursday. Due to the severity and risks associated with the medical condition, the procedure had been booked for the very next Monday.

“It’s a major surgery. If it’s not done on time he could have a stroke and suffer brain damage. They said they would call him with a new theatre date and, if they don’t, he needs to return to the hospital on June 3,” says the irate mother.

READ: Helen Joseph Hospital water outage threatens lives of dialysis patients

Filthy stench fills the corridors

The teen patient, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of victimisation, recalls his hospital stay being dreadful.

“The hospital is not clean and smells terribly. Patients who are admitted are told to have their own masks because the hospital does not have any extra for patients.”

He was also unable to use the toilets as they were clogged due to the lack of water for flushing.

The aggrieved mother says the conditions patients are subjected to are repugnant. “That hospital is not a good experience. My son couldn’t shower because there was no water.”

Gauteng health spokesperson Kwara Kekana says: “In terms of the further management of the patient, the hospital’s quality assurance unit will contact the patient for redress on the case.”

Lack of response

Despite being sent a comprehensive list of questions, the provincial health department would not confirm the cause of the theatre backlog nor the number of surgical procedures postponed on Monday.

Kekana simply says: “Due to the recent pressures in the hospital, patients are managed according to their clinical risks. We have seen an influx of emergency cases that require theatre; accordingly, some patients have to be rescheduled according to their clinical risks.”

READ: ‘The system is going to implode’: Cancer treatment backlogs grow after Charlotte Maxeke fire

The provincial health department also failed to respond to questions about its concern in relation to the mounting challenges at the facility, as well as what action would be taken to mitigate the impact.

Water supply challenges

Helen Joseph Hospital and Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital have suffered under protracted water outages over the past week. The taps had been dry since Wednesday, with water beginning to trickle back on Sunday.

Water supply was disrupted due to “below average inflow of water into the system”, says Johannesburg Water.

By Monday afternoon, the water challenges had still not been fully resolved, with the hospital still relying on water tanks.

“We still have the challenges with the reservoir in Hursthill. Joburg Water is still in communication with Rand Water to resolve the matter urgently. Water tankers are still roaming in the area,” Johannesburg Water says in a statement issued on Monday afternoon. The utility says it continues to monitor the water supply to hospitals around the clock.


Doctors tell City Press that the impact of a water shortage is immense, affecting surgeries and other critical treatment, including dialysis.

READ: In Focus: What the Charlotte Maxeke fire tells us about health and safety in Gauteng hospitals

A limited water supply meant theatres and theatre equipment sets could not be sterilised as frequently as usual. Routinely, doctors perform surgical scrubbing to prevent the spread of surgical infection. This is the rigorous washing of the hands and forearm, for which water is critical. The purpose of the practice is to remove dirt and transient microorganisms from the nails, hands and forearms, as healthcare workers operating in theatres have to be sterile before entering sterile surgical suites.

Water outage threatens lives of dialysis patients

Meanwhile, dialysis patients at Helen Joseph Hospital had their treatment time cut short last week. For some, their four-hour dialysis was reduced to as little as 30 minutes when the water supply ran out.

City Press has seen a message from a concerned senior doctor that reads: “Renal is in crisis at HJH. There is no water and our chronic dialysis patients haven’t been dialysed in almost a week. We URGENTLY need a plan. We propose to have access to our HD machines from CMJAH [Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital] and take them to Edenvale/Bertha (we need an area with taps) to set up a chronic HD unit. Patients will die this week.”

The water tanks supplying the renal unit at the Johannesburg hospital were at 100% on Tuesday, a first in days.

Hospital pressures

Helen Joseph Hospital is one of the many public facilities accommodating patients from CMJAH. The latter hospital, which is one of the largest in the country, remains closed after a fire gutted the facility on April 16.

READ: Unidentified bodies in Gauteng: How the system works and plans to improve it

It was initially set to reopen after seven days but the hospital was declared a no-go zone, with staff even unable to collect critical equipment in short supply at other provincial facilities.

A month ago, the Gauteng health department unveiled a phased approach to return to the facility. To date, the only unit operating from CMJAH is the service run by the National Health Laboratory Service. CMJAH doctors remain scattered across the province, reviewing their patients from already overburdened health facilities.


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