Heroes rally to save patients after cable thieves plunge Eastern Cape hospital into darkness for five days
Doctors, nurses and support staff forgo sleep to save pregnant women and premature babies after cable thieves cut power for nearly a week.
For five days, staff at Dora Nginza Hospital in Nelson Mandela Bay worked day and night to keep their patients – mostly pregnant women, premature babies and children – alive after cable theft took out the power supply to their hospital.
“I was thinking of retiring soon, but the team that worked these five days make me feel like I can work until I am 80,” said the head of gynaecology and obstetrics, Professor Mfundo Mabenge.
When the power went off, staff waited for the generators to kick in, as usual, thinking that the electricity would come back on in an hour or two. But the power stayed off until five days later.
The biggest problem for Mabenge’s department was that its wards are two flights of stairs down from the operating theatres and 75 C-sections were scheduled for the next five days.
Also, there were 61 patients in the maternity ward about to give birth and there were no lights – leaving everything in darkness.
“We didn’t get a lot of sleep, I can tell you,” Mabenge said. “We do everything we can and God and the angels will help us. And they remained on call at the hospital for 24 hours a day.
“We told the patients, we are not [turning] you away. We don’t want anybody to die but to get you to theatre you are going to have to climb the stairs.”
We just went back to Covid-19 mode. We were working fast, cleaning and operating and organising.
And then they started one very pregnant woman after the other slowly climbing two flights of stairs, being nursed on the top floor until they could walk down again.
“Now that the electricity is back, I feel very fit. I sometimes had to run up those two flights of stairs several times a day,” Mabenge laughed.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality took footage of the substation near the hospital to show how it had been completely stripped and where cable thieves had broken in through the air vent.
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The hospital has two generators that could keep essential equipment going, but there were switchovers to prevent them from burning out.
For a few critical hours there was a chance that the hospital would run out of fuel. This was averted at the last minute.
“We just went back to Covid-19 mode. We were working fast, cleaning and operating and organising,” Mabenge said.
On Monday, 29 January, Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the electricity had finally been restored after “days of operating with generators because of cable theft”.
“The department wishes to send its heartfelt gratitude to all Dora Nginza Hospital health workers who worked tirelessly to ensure lives were saved when the hospital faced an electricity crisis,” he said.
An incident report filed for the power outage shows how much work health workers did to keep operations going.
The ambulance call centre for the metro had to work on emergency power only.
Operating theatres were restricted to emergency cases. Paediatric high care had to be kept functional and staff said they were thankful that no patient needed ventilation.
It cannot be correct that our facilities and healthcare workers are targeted by thugs.
Emergency lighting had to be provided for the maternity and gynaecology wards.
The mortuary stayed functional on emergency power but called private undertakers in to help.
Food was distributed with the help of Livingstone Hospital.
“The department can confirm that there were no deaths as a result of the disrupted electricity connections,” Kupelo said.
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The cable theft is the latest incident of vandalism at public health facilities. Last week the entire fence of Mabandla Clinic was stolen in one night.
Health MEC Nomakhosazana Meth condemned the crimes.
“We are calling on communities to protect these facilities because they are there to service them. It cannot be correct that our facilities and healthcare workers are targeted by thugs,” she said.
“When our facilities are vandalised or when healthcare workers are robbed, it is communities that suffer, so we urge communities to work with law enforcement agencies to ensure that thugs are brought to book.
“We are grateful that no one lost their life as a result of this thuggery, which we condemn in the strongest words possible.
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“We thank the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality for working around the clock to ensure that the electricity was restored.”
The municipality issued a statement to explain that the power failure had been caused by vandalism of electricity meters and protection equipment. This caused the Struandale substation to trip.
“Residents are encouraged to stand together and refrain from vandalism as it has a severe impact on service delivery and can be lethal,” the municipality said. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.