Trauma as Charlotte Maxeke Hospital failed to make plans for cancer patients

Some of the facility’s cancer patients have told Eyewitness News about the trauma suffered when the hospital failed to make arrangements for alternative treatment sites in the aftermath of the disaster, leaving many of them in limbo.

Charlotte Maxeke Hospital after a fire on 17 April 2021. Picture: Twitter @GautengHealth

JOHANNESBURG - As the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg continues to count the losses from a devastating fire that gutted parts of the facility over a month ago, it appears the human cost of the inferno will be much harder to quantify.

Some of the facility’s cancer patients have told Eyewitness News about the trauma suffered when the hospital failed to make arrangements for alternative treatment sites in the aftermath of the disaster, leaving many of them in limbo.

“We had to have sleepless nights for three weeks not knowing what’s going to happen. Is my mom going to die now or what? That’s what you get scared of.” Not her real name, Jane Mphahlele’s mother had been scheduled to receive daily radiation therapy for a period of 25 days and was only on day 13 when the fire forced Charlotte Maxeke Hospital managers to shut its doors.

While patients who were admitted at the hospital were relocated to other facilities in the province, it appears it took a while until a referral system for the cancer outpatients was devised.

And with each passing day, the patients and their families grew more anxious and rightfully so, given the critical importance of time when it comes to cancer treatment.

Mphahlele’s mother and over 100 other patients were moved from pillar to post seeking alternative sites where their treatment could be continued.

“I was calling everywhere where I could possibly call, the Department of Health, the hotline, it was just horrific. During the three weeks, there was no communication of what is going to happen to cancer treatment patients. And you know as they are sitting at home, the tumour is not sitting in one place, it is growing.”

Some of the patients said that after weeks of delays, they were eventually referred to the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria where the oncology services from Charlotte Maxeke were moved to.

WATCH: Charlotte Maxeke hospital shut down after fire

But not everyone on the treatment list made the immediate cut.

Steve Biko Hospital CEO Dr Mathabo Mathebula explained how patients were scheduled for treatment.

“The scheduling of patients was according to the triage that is done by the clinical aspect, which of the patients fit wherein the queue and which patient is continuing without interruption.”

Eyewitness News spoke to oncologists who explained that interruption in cancer treatment can harm patients although this is dependent on many aspects, like the stage of the illness.

Charlotte Maxeke Hospital did not respond to questions.

Health experts are worried the fire that ripped through some parts of the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital will worsen the already massive cancer treatment backlogs in the country.

The delays in cancer diagnosis and care in the public health system are not new, with extensive reports over the years showing how failure to deliver timeous cancer treatment has led to many deaths.

In 2014, the Gauteng government described the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital’s radiation oncology unit as the largest in the country, treating then-3,500 patients a year.

This number has increased over the years.

When a fire put a stop to the hospital’s operations over a month ago, there were ramifications not only for the many Charlotte Maxeke patients but also for the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, which had to try and absorb the load.


But can Steve Biko Hospital carry this burden?

Mathebula explained: “There may be a possibility that some patients at the beginning of therapy may be delayed. Meaning new patients may be affected – meaning because now our machines have to handle the additional load. But the main issue would be the shortage of staff to render the service.”

While in the past, hospitals were haunted by a lack of cancer treatment equipment, their most pressing crisis now is the scare nature of oncology skills.

“Because of the scarcity of the skill, you’ll have money but can’t attract any person to fill the post. There aren’t many of them and you can imagine that working with cancer patients is not a field preferred by many,” Mathebula added.

Meanwhile, a Charlotte Maxeke oncology staffer who spoke to Eyewitness News on condition of anonymity said they were worried that by the time services resumed, some of their cancer outpatients would have died while others’ conditions might deteriorate.

This is because not all patients could be referred to Steve Biko for treatment as that would have overburdened that hospital’s oncology department.

And there were already long delays before patients were redirected there in the first place.

The hospital is said to have over 150 cancer outpatients at any given time with others waiting to start treatment.

And as Mathebula explained, the new patients will bear the brunt of the backlogs.

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