Psychiatric deaths: State must ‘own up’

Virginia Machpelah
Virginia Machpelah

Christine Nxumalo was among hundreds of family members who were strongly opposed to the Gauteng health department’s decision to move about 2 000 psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni psychiatric hospital to several nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) throughout the country.

She recalled receiving an SMS on June 30 informing her that her 50-year-old sister, Virginia Machpelah, was being transferred to a care facility run by an NGO in Cullinan outside Pretoria that day.

A few weeks later, on August 25, Nxumalo received a call from another NGO, Precious Angels in Atteridgeville, informing her of Machpelah’s death. She was surprised, as she had thought her sister was in Cullinan.

She later learnt from a patient report completed by paramedics, who declared her sister dead, that she had actually died nine days before, on August 17.

The cause of Machpelah’s death is still unknown.

“We’ve tried everything in our power to stop the government from transferring the patients from an institution that specialises in mental care to homes in townships. It has only been two months since they moved the last patient and already 36 of them are dead,” Nxumalo said.

“All they [provincial health officials] are saying is ‘condolences’. They can keep their condolences. We’re in this situation because of the department’s wrong decision and they must own up to it.”

An angry Nxumalo said her sister was buried 17 days after she died, after struggling to get her remains released from a mortuary in Hebron near Ga-Rankuwa.

“I was told by a worker at the mortuary that there were six other bodies there from the same place where my sister died and they had been lying there for two months. We hope that all these [deaths] will be investigated because people can’t just die,” she said.

Meanwhile, the department has this week declined to comment on the cause of the deaths, citing a pending investigation by the health ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba.

In an interview with the SABC this week, health MEC Qedani Mahlangu said people did not die because they were moved.

“It is important to indicate that no one can die simply because they are moved. That is impossible under any circumstances ... Some of these patients may have had underlying causes,” she said.

The department said it had decided to reprioritise funds spent on Esidimeni, citing R323 million paid to the hospital during the 2014/15 financial year alone.

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