Godfrey Tenehi was a good man, an entrepreneur who counselled criminals to leave their theiving ways behind in favour of legitimate business. But when a blaze broke out in Tenehi’s shack, critically wounding him and his girlfriend, the doctors at Baragwanath refused to admit him. Fourteen agonising hours later, Tenehi succumbed to his burns in an open ward where people were eating and walking around, instead of being taken care of in ICU or Baragwanath’s famed burn treatment centre. By MANDY DE WAAL.
It is the darkest time of night – the hour just before dawn breaks – and an ambulance is racing from Jabavu to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Diepkloof, Soweto. Inside the ambulance: two paramedics who have battled to try and stabilise a young man and woman who have been burned severely. The patients are fighting for their lives. With them is a distraught mother.
“It was critical, very critical,” says paramedic Kate Hlungwane. “They were in pain, in such excruciating pain. Burn wounds are the worst because they are so painful. At the scene they couldn’t even get a vein in the young man. The other paramedic, who is an ALS (advanced life support) nurse, was trying to put up lines. The young man was so severely burned it took quite some time to get the vein. But [by] the time we got him to hospital, the patient was conscious and responsive. He was trying to tell us where the pain was.”
At least the trip to the hospital was short, and Baragwanath had earned a reputation of having one of the best burn treatment units in Africa. There was that hope to cling to. But when the ambulance arrived at the emergency entrance, the paramedics weren’t even allowed to bring the patients in.
“The hospital was on divert, which means there are no beds, there are too many patients for the resources and they divert the patients to other hospitals,” says Papi Marajane, a paramedic who attended to the patients on the scene. “They refused to even see the patients. But they may not refuse a patient regardless of whether the hospital is on ‘divert’ or not,” says Marajane, who is a stubborn man. He wasn’t about to take no for an answer – not with two critical burn patients in his ambulance, and certainly not when he was standing outside a hospital supposedly renowned for their burn treatment centre.
“The consulting doctor on duty and I had this big confrontation because the doctors didn’t even want to look at the patient[s]. They just told us that we must go away. That was a bit hard for me to swallow,” he says.
The tragedy that led to Dimaketso (Maggie) Molefe and Godfrey Tenehi being burned so badly unfolded in the early hours of Sunday 01 July, 2012, when Tenehi’s grandmother heard screaming coming from the young man’s room.
“On the 1st at about 02h00, my grandmother heard screaming from Godfrey’s shack, which is in front of her bedroom,” says Ted Tenehi, Godfrey’s older brother. It was the early hours of Sunday morning, and the weekend is a time when fun is had with friends, so at first there wasn’t any concern. But when the screaming continued, the Tenehi brothers’ grandmother jumped out of her bed and ran to see what was the matter was.
“Immediately she sees flames coming out from under the door, but the door is closed. It was clear that there was a fire in the room,” says Tenehi, whose younger brother David came to break down the door with the help of a tenant staying next door.
“It appeared that the fire had taken control and my brother and his girlfriend had no way out, no exit,” he explains. By the time the door was forced and the fire was killed with a fire extinguisher, Tenehi’s brother Godfrey was badly wounded. “My brother was brutally burned and couldn’t move. He was lying down in the fire when they kicked open the door.”
Mrs Dimaketso Tenehi, Godfrey’s mother, pulled the pair out of the shack and raced off to phone an ambulance. But there was no response. She then ran to the nearest clinic at Mofolo in Soweto and got the security guard to summon paramedics, who came to assist. By the time they arrived, it was almost four in the morning – two hours after the first screams were heard coming from the shack.
“The paramedics took about 30 minutes preparing my brother Godfrey and then took him, his girlfriend and my mother to hospital. But when they arrived at Baragwanath hospital and rushed in to get a doctor, the doctor on duty said no, he wouldn’t accept them,” says Tenehi.
“The paramedic was fighting with the doctor, begging him. Telling the doctor on duty: please attend to the patients because they are brutally burned and their chances of survival would be slim if they were turned away. But the doctor just chased them away. He said no, Baragwanath had too many people already,” Tenehi adds.
Paramedic and advanced life support nurse Marajane picks up the story: “We arrived at the hospital just after five in the morning and left at 06h30. So much time was wasted.”
Despite the consulting doctor refusing the burn patients entry, Marajane tracked down the number for the Managing Medical Officer responsible for putting hospitals on divert. “I phone the MMO, and after I had explained what was happening, he asked to speak to the consultant who was the head of the doctors at Baragwanath and who was trying to chase us away,” he says.
“The consultant spoke to the MMO, and after that, this doctor had a change of heart; he was a good person all of a sudden and took the patient in. All the doctors there wanted to cut my head off because I was so stubborn because I knew that they can’t turn away a patient without seeing the patient, even if they are on divert,” explains Marajane.
If the paramedic hadn’t been aware of that fact, he’d have had to take the patients to Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, which is about 30 minutes away from Baragwanath. “These two patients were critical and needed immediate attention, but you know they took their time,” says Marajane.
Maggie Molefe was taken to ICU just after 06h30, but Godfrey Tenehi wasn’t as lucky. He stayed in emergency until 08h30, when he was taken to the wards – only after the fumbling awkwardness of getting forms filled out and questions answered.
“He hadn’t even seen a doctor, he only had seen matrons, and the matrons told me that he only came into the wards at 10h00,” says Ted Tenehi. “They put him in a bed with just a pipe in his mouth, in a normal ward. That ward is just like a hostel set-up, it has beds all over and there are people there who are sitting eating. There are people who were walking around. It was a ward that could take close to about 20 people and looked just like a normal ward, but they tried to tell me it was a trauma ward. I could see with my own eyes that the other people there could be discharged at any time.”
“My brother was put in the bed and they said that his chances of living were very slim. They said he would not make it. When I walked in and saw my brother, it was very devastating. He was still breathing and there was this sound… like… ‘Aaaah aaah’. [At this point in the conversation Ted Tenehi makes an agonisingly low groaning sound.] You could see how he was still suffering.”
Photographs of Godfrey Tenehi show him in an open ward with heavy blankets placed over his body – a body that was so badly burnt the paramedics couldn’t find his veins. A desperate Ted Tenehi tried to get his brother medical intervention.
“I went to the person in charge and told her that I would climb the tallest mountain to get my brother the chance to live. I asked, what can I do, is there any chronic medication that requires extra money, or does he need a donation of skin, what is it that I can do?” Tenehi relays.
“I wanted to pick up the phone and try and call a charity or somehow get some money because I myself can’t take seeing him in the terrible state he was in. The lady in charge said: ‘There is nothing you can do. Just pray because he will be dead in 24 hours.’ I was devastated.”
Tenehi then went through the hospital to try and find a doctor in charge, but without any success. He then wrote a short missive and emailed it out, hoping it would be passed on to someone who could help.
“I wanted to get the information out as far and wide as I could so that I could try to get help so my brother could live. I then went to go and see a nurse in the wards to see if I couldn’t arrange for my brother to be moved to a private hospital. I know of the number of people of Netcare, the number for sponsorships. I wanted to see if they could help me. But the nurse responded by saying: ‘There is nothing you could do. Baragwanath is the best hospital in this matter. But your brother has a very slim chance of survival.’ Then I was confused. If this is the best hospital but you don’t offer solutions to a critical situation, how can you say you are the best?”
Tenehi asked for a schedule of doctors on duty. But he never got the list. Later he went down to emergency again to try and get help or advice. “I walked into the emergency room and two people died there. There was this elderly lady in a wheelchair. I remember I helped her to come in. Nobody attended to her. The next minute the man who had brought her in started to cry. She was dead. No one had even paid attention to her. It really hurt me because that was also the situation my brother was in. Nobody cared,” says Tenehi.
The question Tenehi wants answered is why his brother’s girlfriend was taken to ICU, and why his brother was taken to an open ward in terrible agony, only to be given a bed amongst people eating and walking around. Only to be abandoned.
Tenehi says he got no answers to this question. “The only response I got was: ‘This one is already dead. Just forget about it’.” After scrambling for hours to try and get medical intervention for his brother, Tenehi got a call at 21h15 to say his brother had died.
“Now I am the only breadwinner in the family. There are certain funds I am still waiting for, there are people who were to have paid me and they haven’t paid me for my work, so I am trying to go a legal route. Now I am trying to get some money from somewhere so that I can at least bury my brother. It is the most terrible situation.”
Tenehi says his brother was a good man. “He was only 33 years of age. I groomed my brother, and he looked up to me as his role model. Anything that I would do, he would do it. He started his career after he saw I was into music and became a choreographer. He got into dance. He was one of the dancers in Miss SA and helped them with choreography in the late nineties.”
An entrepreneur, Godfrey Tenehi had a business that employed a group of youths who cleaned community dustbins; he worked as an instructor in a gym; and was on the verge of setting up a cosmetic and hair-care sales distribution business when he died. “He had his own DJ set-up and he would go and work at parties on the weekend, and used that to make income for himself. Even if he worked in the week, he would still go out on the weekend and do events, tell people how to bring dancers or indigenous drama into their parties and functions.”
But what’s remarkable is that despite being a busy entrepreneur, Godfrey Tenehi was something of a social activist who wanted to deter people from getting involved in crime. “He was working with a group of people in Meadowlands who were facing a life of poverty. For them the solution was to turn to crime, but he actually talked them out of it. He would visit criminals in prison to try and help them be an entrepreneur like him.”
Says his grief-stricken brother: “He was a good man. But the way he died. He cried until he died from the pain. It is unbelievable. Bara just neglected him and wrote him off. Why do we have doctors?”
Daily Maverick managed to get hold of Baragwanath’s PR department late in the afternoon, where the spokesperson who answered the phone said: “Well, it is four now, so I need to go home, but I will give this to the relevant matron who I know will take care of this matter. Besides me going home, I still need to investigate the matter to determine how true your facts are. You caught me when I was about to leave.” The spokesperson said she would get someone to call before Daily Maverick deadline, but no one called.
Simon Zwane, the spokesperson for Gauteng’s MEC for Health and Social Development Ntombi Mekgwe, responded promptly to Daily Maverick’s request for comment by saying: “Our comment is that we will investigate this matter and stern action will be taken if negligence is found to have contributed to the demise of this man.”
“What about the family and the way the family were treated?” asked Daily Maverick.
“We apologise to the family for the way they were treated. They should have been treated with much more sensitivity and compassion.”
The DA’s Gauteng Caucus spokesperson on Health and Corruption, Jack Bloom, says Baragwanath is appallingly run and he fears many cases like this one happen, but go unreported. “Baragwanath’s CEO Johanna More is a nurse. Would you put a nurse in charge of a R2-billion corporation? They have a budget of more than R2 billion, and yet they don’t even have a chartered accountant,” says Bloom, adding that nonetheless, the most shocking aspect of this tragic incident was the lack of compassion.
“He could have been admitted earlier. It doesn’t appear that pain medication was properly administered, or that anybody cared. To me, what is most shocking is that nobody seemed to care. That there is this anxious family begging for help, but they are not even looking at what the options are. Surely there were better options than making this man wait so long, and just putting him in a general ward? He should have been in ICU.”
Baragwanath will do its investigation. It may issue a statement. Ted Tenehi will bury his brother Godfrey, and do what he can as the sole breadwinner for his family. The news cycle will churn. And, very cruelly, life will just go on. DM
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Main photo -
Godfrey Tenehi lying in an open ward, after initially being refused admittance to Baragwanath. Heavy blankets cover his badly burnt body. He would die there later, groaning with pain as people ate food around him. (Ted Tenehi)
Other photos -
Close-up of Godfrey Tenehi, hours before he died. Photo by Ted Tenehi who asked for his brother's photographs, as painful as it is, to be shown. Ted Tenehi wants to know why his brother died such a terrible, agonising death.
Godfrey Tenehi's shack before it was razed by fire. (Ted Tenehi)
Godfrey Tenehi's shack was razed in the early hours of Sunday morning, trapping him and his girlfriend inside. The cause of the fire, says his family, could be an old bar heater. (Ted Tenehi)
Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital (Travelstart)