NEHAWU DEATH STRIKE
‘It all started unexpectedly a few minutes before midnight’ — a doctor’s night of hell at Bloemfontein’s Pelonomi Hospital
A young doctor shares his story of a night of fear as medical staff barricaded themselves in the theatre in an attempt to continue life-saving surgery while protesters tried to force them out.
This is my personal experience of the events that transpired on the evening of 5 March 2023 and the following day at Pelonomi Hospital in Bloemfontein.
I work in the theatre complex on the sixth floor at Pelonomi Hospital. It all started very unexpectedly a few minutes before midnight. Some singing and whistling could be heard from the trauma/Netcare entry gate of the hospital.
Fires at the gates
From the sixth-floor windows, we could see a handful of people dancing in front of the gates before they proceeded to light two large fires, which seemed to amplify the singing, whistling and dancing. Concern and chatter spread throughout our unit and we heard more about the plans from union members on duty about the impending strike plans — they warned us we had best get out before 5am because the hospital would be locked and guarded after that.
It was clear that escape plans were being made throughout the hospital and new concerns arose about whether the hospital would continue to function. The flames died out and things settled down for a short while. Theatre continued working as normal as no internal or external communication stated otherwise, despite the security and hospital management being informed.
At about 4.30am on 6 March, the fires, singing and whistling started all over again and escalated very quickly — fires were lit at each hospital entrance gate and the protesting groups grew in numbers with every passing minute.
The water to the hospital was cut off. A small group of protesters moved through the hospital and intimidated staff, forcing them to get out of the hospital by 5am or not get out at all. A protester came into the theatre complex and urged us to get out as soon as possible or they would come back to force us out. Panic spread, and many staff started fleeing the hospital.
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Matrons were informed, the police were contacted, everyone pushed for the safety of our units and we and our staff prioritised the protection of patients that required emergency surgery. We felt very isolated and vulnerable in our unit, but kept ourselves protected as best we could and continued with the few critical and life-threatening cases requiring surgery with suboptimal staffing and working conditions.
This continued for hours until the police appeared to have the situation under control at the hospital entrance and managed to steer the group away from the hospital and ensured the hospital was safe for further movement of working staff.
A handful of exhausted staff that remained in our unit stayed for emergency surgical cases until it was safe for our colleagues to enter the premises and take over for the rest of the day, but the hospital’s functioning was already severely affected. Patients suffered, staff were stressed and stretched and the hospital was not able to offer anything close to optimal patient care. DM/MC