Madiba: The health file


IT WILL go down as the week the world held its breath. Was this the end for Nelson Mandela, the architect of a democratic South ­Africa and the greatest living legend of his time?

After all, he is 92 and, hard as it may be to accept, he isn’t immortal. One day he would have to pass on – was this it? Were we going to have to face up to a world without our beloved tata?

Mercifully it was not his time. Two tense days after Madiba was admitted to Johannesburg’s Milpark Hospital we were finally told the truth: he had suffered an acute respiratory infection but was out of the woods and recuperating at home.

Deputy President Kga­lema Motlanthe acknowledged people had been kept in the dark too long and the situation could have been handled better. It would be next time. Let’s hope that “next time” is a long time coming.

MADIBA’S HEALTH This was not the first time there had been concern about Madiba’s lungs. He was diagnosed with early-stage tuberculosis (TB) in 1988 when he was still in jail.

The then 70-year-old started coughing badly and complained of damp in his cell. He was admitted to hospital in Stellenbosch then treated at Tygerberg Hospital.

Two litres of fluid were drained from his lungs and he spent six weeks recovering in hospital. Luckily the disease was in its early stages but Madiba later said it took four months before he was completely well again.

The incident was a warning to the government of the day which realised gambling with the health of a figure as prominent as Mandela was dangerous. He was moved to a house in the grounds of Victor Verster Prison.

“Actually it wasn’t TB Madiba had back then but pleurisy, which is similar to tuberculosis but not quite the same,” Professor Chris Bolliger explains. He is a pulmonary specialist associated with the University of Stellenbosch and was a member of the medical team that treated Mandela at the time.

TB is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that attack the lungs or other parts of the body. Pleurisy is swelling of the lung tissue and can be caused by pneumonia or TB. It’s possible to r­ecover from pleurisy completely so no damage remains that could weaken the lungs in the future, Professor Bolliger says.

He’s convinced Mandela didn’t have pneumonia this time. If he had the former president would not have been discharged so quickly.

“On average it takes an older person a lot longer than two nights in hospital to recover from something like that.”

Rumours that one of Madiba’s lungs had collapsed are also unlikely to be true, he says. The condition is potentially fatal and also not something two nights in hospital can cure.

Read all about it in the YOU, 10 February 2011.

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