A 75-year-old woman falls down half a flight of stairs. I hear a massive thud and crunching of bones - a sound I will never forget. I see blood trickling down the side of her face and I can’t move her as she yelps each time I try to lift her. Something is broken. She’s in shock, she wants to throw up and is petrified when I insist she has to go to hospital immediately. She begs me not to take her, as she has the idea that once an elderly person gets admitted to hospital that’s where they will die, get a toe-tag and get shoved naked into a massive fridge.
I’ve forgotten everything I learnt in a recent first aid course. Only one thing plays over and over in my head – most people die from shock and not because of their injuries. After giving her sugar water, I convince her to get into the car to go to her house doctor whom she trusts. She hasn’t lost all her senses, as from the back seat orders me to drive slower.
The GP stabilises the grey-haired woman - who for the first time in her life - is shuffling. I want to cry, but bite my lip. The GP suspects something is broken and hands me a form to get X-rays done at a private hospital. I decide to go to a facility closer to my home instead of his recommendation of a different private institution.
All the paperwork gets done at the radiology department and X-rays reveal the woman has fractured her humerus in several places. The receptionist says she has advised the trauma unit and the orthopaedic surgeon that we are on our way. I fill in more paperwork and hand over her medical aid card which she hasn’t used in years. Two hours have lapsed since the fall and it’s now about four o’clock on a Friday afternoon. The festive season holidays are about to come to an end. I overhear staff members chatting about going home soon and about their weekend plans. We walk into the emergency room where a nurse leads the patient to a bed. The friendly nurse says she’s been told by the doctor to fit a sling and come back on Monday.
I’m stunned. I cannot believe a 75-year-old woman with fractures, cuts, swelling and bruises is simply being fitted with a floppy sling and no pain medication whatsoever. I approach the trauma doctor on duty who is busy texting or playing a game on his cell phone. When I ask if he will look at the woman who is now in pain he simply says, “The medical aid won’t pay me as she has been seen by a GP already”. I try to explain that I have paid the GP cash for the consultation and he will be able to claim through the medical aid. I’m virtually on my knees appealing with him to give her the once-over. And where’s the orthopaedic surgeon? He has gone home. I feel helpless.
The doctor belligerently walks over to the old woman. She’s no ordinary elderly lady, doctor, she is my mother. The woman I’ve looked after for 2 decades since my father passed away. The woman whom I’ve never taken for granted.
The doctor bristles with annoyance as I appeal for pain medication for the weekend at least, until we get to the specialist in two days’ time. He scribbles a script. After googling him, I find out he is a GP and an aesthetic practitioner, who dispenses botox to people who wish to wipe ageing away. The Health Professions Council of South Africa doesn’t know who he is.
After a lengthy meeting with the hospital manager it emerged that five General Practitioners own the trauma unit. Their contract to own and run the emergency room gets reviewed every three years. The manager has detailed my version of events as well as the doctor’s version in a full report. The hospital has asked if they may use my concerns as a teaching tool. The doctor labelled the incident a misunderstanding. I call it negligence. I worry how the voiceless, the meek, the aged and the very young get treated at some institutions. At some point in our lives - we will all need medical attention and be at the mercy of a doctor. My wish is that everyone gets treated with dignity and by someone who adheres to a code of ethics.
Giovanna Gerbi is an Eyewitness News Reporter.