SCHOOL’S out, most people have taken leave from work and the good times are rolling. But for many, the rolling can quickly get out of hand, and not a day will go by this holiday without people being killed or badly injured in various accidents and alcohol-induced altercations.And, for most people, their only source of help is public hospitals. One of the busiest hospitals in Nelson Mandela Bay this season, and throughout the year, is Livingstone Hospital in Korsten.
I set out to spend the evening alongside the doctors and nurses there. I arrive at 7pm and already the stream of injured have begun to pour into the waiting room. Dreary, blood-covered people sit waiting to be attended to. A woman sits with a blanket covering her face. Thinking she is trying to protect herself from the rampant XDR TB that’s plaguing Port Elizabeth, I walk past without a second glance.I later learn she was actually trying to hide her bruised and bloodied face from people. She’d been beaten up so badly she could not even talk, her mouth was full of blood and her eyes were swollen to the point where she could not see.But she wasn’t in dire need of assistance, so she would have to wait her turn. Her turn would only come four hours later in the dead of night.Hearing a commotion, I peek around the corner of the suture room. Blood covers the floors and walls. Droplets of blood trail to the patients lining the walls. A man sits on the table, blood streaming down his face and back. Eleven stab wounds, the doctor tells me as he stitches the man back together. Behind drunk and pained eyes and with slurred speech the man tells me: “I was having some drinks with my friends when something happened and they stabbed me.”With friends like these, who needs enemies.The doctor doesn’t question him but instead gets right to the job at hand. I am sure he has heard this story a hundred times. And, with patients piling up, his workload is increasing by the minute.A man stabbed in the stomach, a gunshot to the leg and a young boy stabbed in the back are just a few of his patients for the evening.At times there is an eerie silence, except for a mother who sits clutching her 13-year-old son. Tears stream down her face and drip onto the young boy’s chest. They cut lines in the dried blood that seems to have covered most of his body, leaving trails of clear skin in an ocean of crimson.His stab wounds are deep. The doctor explains to the nurse: “We’re going to have to send him to the SOC (surgeon on call)”.“Is he going to be alright?” the mother wails.This young boy, a prefect and keen soccer player at his school, has not been stabbed by a stranger, but by someone close to him. His 14-year-old sister’s 24-year-old boyfriend took revenge on the family for not allowing the sister to see him anymore. So he walked up behind this young boy and cut a 12cm gash into his back, slicing through veins and damaging the child’s left kidney. With not enough orderlies around, his mother and other family members which have begun to arrive push him up to the SOC area to be seen by a surgeon.
There, he waits again to be treated. Family members arrive in their droves – many drunk, stumbling along the hallways – asking every staff member they see if the young boy is alright.The SOC section has only two doctors on duty and they are stretched thinly between patients. Having to tend to so many at once, they have no choice but to let this boy wait. There are more serious injuries that must be attended to. A woman has been brought in, unconscious and unable to be woken. A bad sign, the doctor tells me. Her chest has collapsed and her x-rays show she has seven broken ribs.The doctors send her for a CAT scan. I am surprised to find the radiological room is like stepping into the first world. It’s so clean and well maintained that it could put some private hospitals to shame.The scan shows she has bleeding on the brain and an operation is needed to relieve the pressure that’s building up. But she will also have to wait her turn, as the operating room is full at the moment. Unable to find out what happened to her, the doctor guesses she was either hit by a car or beaten so badly that she could die.In my short time so far at Livingstone, at least 90 per cent of the people coming in have injuries that have been caused by people under the influence of alcohol. Finally, Dr Leslie Hendricks, a 27-year-old who is her final days of community service, calls over the teenage boy’s family and tells them to bring him to the cubicle so she can attend to him.She removes the bandages the doctors in the suture room have placed on the boy. “It’s not too bad, we should be able to sort this boy out quickly,” she tells the mother as she examines the wound on his back. Mom breaks down in tears when she sees her son’s injuries. “I’ll be right back,” Hendricks says before dashing off down the hallway. I trail after her, thinking she is off to attend to an urgent new case.But no, she’s just making a dash to the bathroom. On her way she is stopped by people on stretchers and lining the hallways asking her to help their loved ones.I head back to the cubicle to await the doctor’s return, to find the boy has been joined by an uncle barely able to stand. The man looks like he himself is no stranger to the inside of this hospital. He rubs the boy’s neck with such ferocity, despite the child having a wound you could easily put your whole hand into. The boy begs his uncle to stop. The doctor returns, washes her hands and gloves up to attend to her young patient. She injects him with some pain killers and opens up the wound. It’s not as easy a task as she had thought. The boy’s veins have been cut and will have to be stitched back together. She clamps off the veins and gets to work. The swaying uncle shouts at the doctor to hurry up.
He is still rubbing the boy’s neck, making the whole stretcher shake and making a tough job all the tougher. “If you don’t stop moving the stretcher I’m going to have you removed, so please keep quiet and don’t interfere,” the doctor retorts.In one ear and out the other. The uncle doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the boy – he is far more interested in looking at the wound and the operation in progress.The doctors, nurses and security staff at Livingstone are in a constant battle with drunk and disorderly patients and family members. According to the staff I talk to in between being run off their feet, some people like to drink to the point where they can no longer stand. Then they think the best way to settle an argument is to stab each other repeatedly.More often than not, it’s friends and family who do the stabbing. From what I can see, the staff are dedicated and under an enormous amount of stress, poorly paid – but then what civil servant isn’t – and expected to perform at the top of their game, working on little to no sleep. Some people complain the waiting times are excessive at Livingstone. They are, but the number of people constantly streaming into the hospital is also excessive. At about 2am there is a brief respite and the two doctors on duty in the SOC section have time for a quick chat. “I didn’t even taste my dinner, I just stuffed it into my mouth. It didn’t even touch sides,” Hendricks tells the other doctor on duty, who nods in agreement. Then it’s back to work. The operating room is finally free and Hendricks – who at just 27 is the neuro-surgeon on call – can now operate on the comatose woman who has bleeding on the brain.She drills into the patient’s skull and begins to extract the clotted blood. It’s only for those with strong stomachs. A large clot is pulled out and blood begins pouring from Jane Doe’s head. A silent panic seems to take over the theatre. They are unable to find the source of the bleeding. Her heart rate drops and her blood pressure hits the floor. Out come a pair of pliers that would not seem out of place in a horror movie. They cut into her head, making the whole bigger. The crunch of breaking bone sends chills down my spine.No luck. They have to abort the operation and hope the bleeding will stop by itself. By 4am, the hospital is as busy as it was when I arrived. The sick line the hallways waiting to be attended. People with cuts line the walls of the suture room. Babies cry as doctors tend to them. The staff by this time look like they are running on auto pilot. For some it may be the season to be jolly, but not for the doctors and nurses in our public hospitals. They are worked almost to breaking point. And it’s inspiring to see what magic they can work with the shortage of resources available.So next time you reach for that drink while enjoying your Christmas holidays, think about where it could land you.