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'Life Esidimeni patients transferred without necessary medication'

Karabo Ledwaba Journalist
Families of patients who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy sing outside the venue where arbitration hearings took place in 2018.
Families of patients who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy sing outside the venue where arbitration hearings took place in 2018.
Image: Thulani Mbele

A state witness in the Life Esidimeni inquest said she had to wake up a pharmacist in the middle of the night to get medication for sick patients who had been transferred to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with inadequate medicine.

Rochelle Gordon, a former Gauteng department of health nurse, was tasked with escorting patients from Life Esidimeni’s Waverly Care Centre to Tshepong in 2016.

Gordon was being represented by Adv Amanda Gxogxa at the inquest, which seeks to find out if anyone can be held criminally liable for the deaths of 144 mental healthcare patients. The patients died due to malnourishment and neglect. 

“When Miss Gordon comes to testify, she will say that Tshepong patients had seven days’ of medication and not 28 days... she will testify that she was forced to wake up one night a pharmacy manager at Weskoppies to get more medication, meaning that medication given was only for seven days,” said Gxogxa.

Former nursing manager for the Life Esidimeni centre in Waverly, Zanele Buthelezi, was being cross-examined by Gxogxa about her role in the marathon project. She testified that patients were given seven days’ worth of medication when transferred to hospital and 28 days’ worth of medicine when transferring to an NGO as stipulated in their service agreement with the department of health.

Gordon also said  patients  she had escorted to the NGO were physically sick and frail.

“Miss Gordon will testify that some of the patients you discharged to Tshepong ought to have been discharged to a hospital,” said Gxogxa.

“Miss Gordon will testify that as she was observing these patients being moved from Waverly to the bus she saw that they were weak, sick... one of the patients was in a lot of pain and in a wheelchair. This is one of the patients Miss Gordon thought was not supposed to be sent to an NGO.” 

Gxogxa said one of the patients who was at Tshepong had sepsis in his ear, and many patients only had the clothes they were wearing and nothing more.

“My comment is that when the mental healthcare users were transported to NGOs they were provided with clothes because we had a lot of clothes in the facility and the clothes that were donated by the families... mental healthcare users were provided with clothing when they left Life Esidimeni,” said Buthelezi.

But Buthelezi said she agreed that there were patients who were frail and sickly.

“I agree that some of the patients were weak, frail and sick,” said Buthelezi

She said one of Life Esidimeni’s biggest challenges was relying on six-month-old mental healthcare assessments when they had to relocate patients urgently because a patient’s mental state could fluctuate during that period of time. 

She said she raised the issue of the rushed relocation with her boss Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa and with the two department of health officials that were at the centre when handing over patients.

“The concern for the department of health was the numbers [being moved]. That was their primary objective,” said Buthelezi.

Patricia Mbatsha, who ran the Ubuhle Benkosi NGO, said through her lawyer Adv Ebenezer Prophy that they were handed over patients who were sick and without identification.

“Not all the patients arrived with name tags... in an attempt to identify them they had to look at pictures, which were outdated. They then had to call the patients by name in the hope they would answer to the names,” said Prophy. 

The inquest continues.

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