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HEALTHCARE REFLECTION

Selfless doctors doing their jobs need support, not punishment from uncaring hospital administrators

Selfless doctors doing their jobs need support, not punishment from uncaring hospital administrators
Professor Carol-Ann Benn. (Photo: bbc.co.uk / Wikipedia)

Administrators at public hospitals need to be taken to task for being the biggest obstacle to people accessing healthcare. But instead, it’s the healthcare professionals who are targeted. 

When someone you love is going through diagnostic cancer tests to determine whether or not they have cancer, your natural reaction is to lie to them, to offer well-meaning but ultimately pointless platitudes and assurances that everything is going to be fine, even though you have absolutely no clue if that’s true.

When my sister Sandy received that call to say the biopsy of her breast tissue contained cancer cells, I had run out of words and just cried on her shoulder. 

Despite being nine years younger than my sister, I’m the tough sibling, the pragmatic one, the serious one who researches everything and always has something to say. So me bawling wordlessly on her shoulder made her laugh, which was perfect: I needed to cry, she needed to laugh.

Sandy was referred to Professor Carol-Ann Benn at the Breast Care Centre of Excellence at Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg, and pretty much everyone we spoke to before that first appointment with Benn told us how amazing she was. 

I was sceptical. Over the years, I’d observed various specialists, surgeons and professors at Milpark and not all of them were “amazing”. I once witnessed a surgeon shouting at a nurse so loudly that the entire ward fell silent and came to a standstill, and it was all because she dared to ask for clarity about a patient’s medication.

So when, in March, we arrived at the busy Breast Care Centre, I wasn’t sure what to expect. There are five consulting rooms that are always full and we waited in the general reception area before being moved to one of these rooms. 

Benn, a tall, lithe, friendly woman in surgical scrubs and takkies, breezed into and out of the reception area and the consulting rooms at a rapid pace, having quick, meaningful conversations with patients and support staff known as navigators. Pam, her receptionist, moved us into one of the rooms as Benn trotted quickly out of the main door. We’d been waiting for a little while, so I asked the receptionist where Benn was going. “Surgery,” said Pam.

My eyes widened as I grew a little concerned at the thought of waiting a couple of hours for her to finish her surgery. Pam sensed my impatience. 

“She’s a very quick surgeon, she’ll be back before you know it,” she said.

Pam was right, because 25 minutes later Benn walked back in and proceeded to reassure us that everything was going to be okay. She did this not in some childishly optimistic sing-song manner, but with facts, science and input she had already received from the other oncologists we would be dealing with. 

My sister and I had a dozen questions, which she answered easily and authoritatively. She told us we could record what she was saying, so I did, and I went over that video a few times to have a better understanding of the type of breast cancer Sandy had. 

The consulting rooms are decorated with beautiful pictures of family holidays and pets, and my dog-lover sister asked about her huskies. We started talking about our dogs and Benn noticed that Sandy was wearing a dog-themed T-shirt. Sandy mentioned that we had designed the T-shirt as part of a side hustle. 

And so, between answering our questions, giving us a ton of information about what would happen over the course of the rest of the year and phoning vascular surgeons to see who was available to do Sandy’s port surgery for her chemotherapy, Benn also tried to figure out how she could help us sell our T-shirts at the Breast Care Centre. (It didn’t work out, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.)


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This is just how Benn is. She sees a problem and wants to solve it, and you get the feeling that, more often than not, she solves whatever problem she sets her mind to. 

During the many consultations over the following months, I observed her remembering all sorts of personal details about the dozens of patients she interacted with. She also readily hands out her cellphone number to anyone who needs it, including, ahem, the sister of one of her patients with a never-ending list of questions.

On one occasion, Sandy and I were sitting in the reception area and observed Benn talking to two of the navigators. “Can you believe they sent that child home from Bara [Baragwanath Hospital] with third-degree burns and no analgesics? I don’t know anything about little people so I asked doctor … [I can’t remember the name of the paediatric specialist she mentioned] for a favour and he’ll be seeing the kid today, so we need to send him a thank-you and we also need to send something to … [I can’t remember the second name she mentioned] because she arranged for a driver to take analgesics to the kid last night.”

On another occasion, Benn walked hurriedly into the consultation room we were in and said, “Sorry, I just need to tell my son something,” as she walked out for a minute and then back in. She started to chat to us and there was a knock on the door. There was a faint flash of anger in her eyes. “That had better not be my son because he knows not to interrupt a session with a patient.” 

She ignored the person knocking. A few seconds later, another polite knock. She jumped up, seemingly ready to have a stern word with whoever was at the door. It was indeed her eldest son and he needed the car keys, which were in her pocket, to fetch his younger brother from school. She apologised when he was gone, even though she didn’t have to.

While she was examining Sandy, I looked at the family pictures on the walls and wondered if her children knew just how remarkable their mom was. I wondered if they forgave her easily for missing a birthday or a school play. And I wondered if they realised that if she wasn’t there to tuck them in at night, it was because she — like so many healthcare professionals — was quite literally saving someone’s life.

Naturally, when I read about Benn being forced to leave Helen Joseph Hospital, I was angry. Angry because healthcare is a human right and administrators at public hospitals seem to forget that fact all too readily. But what made me livid was the casual way in which Gauteng health department spokesperson Kgomotso Mophulane and Helen Joseph Hospital CEO Dr Relebohile Ncha dismissed Benn’s leaving. 

A world-renowned specialist surgeon, who has a reputation for bending over backwards to help everyone she comes across and always tries to help those who cannot afford private healthcare, was forced to leave a public hospital for doing what doctors are meant to do: take care of their patients. Yet no one at Helen Joseph is being investigated for this.

Head of the Gauteng Department of Health Dr Nomonde Nolutshungu, are you listening? Do you care about saving lives, about doing what’s needed to help people access quality healthcare? 

If you are, please talk to Prof Benn and investigate the relevant administrators at Helen Joseph. Then ask yourself, what if someone you loved needed life-saving surgery and couldn’t afford it? And what if there was a surgeon who was only too happy to help, but her hands were tied because hospital administrators said your loved one lived outside the “catchment area” for that specific hospital?

How would that make you feel, Dr Nolutshungu? Please intervene and do something to show us that you actually do want to provide healthcare to everyone in this country, and that you value the professionals who live by the Hippocratic Oath. DM168

At the end of this story, the writer had asked Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla to look into this matter. However, Phaahla does not oversee or have any control over the provincial departments of health, so we deleted the reference to him and added Head of the Gauteng Department of Health Dr Nomonde Nolutshungu.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    None of us deserve these heartless and seemingly brainless bureaucrats. They are a ginancial drain, and an obstacle to functioning institutions.

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