Eastern Cape's ticking psychiatric time bomb

Government is facing yet another ticking bomb involving psychiatric patients in an Eastern Cape psychiatric hospital.

On Friday a psychiatrist resigned citing the "degrading and inhumane" treatment of patients.

Dr Kiran Sukeri, a psychiatrist at the Tower Psychiatric Hospital in Fort Beaufort said he could no longer "remain silent" about the treatment of patients at the institution.

"I know what I’m going to tell you will jeopardise my safety, as well as that of my family, but I don’t care. Those patients urgently need to be helped."

Sukeri said a far greater number of people have recently died at the hospital than the government is officially admitting.

In recent reports in the Eastern Cape daily, The Herald, the Eastern Cape health department is quoted as saying that 25 patients died at Tower hospital between 2012 and 2017.

Sukeri told City Press' sister newspaper Rapport that the hospital's deaths register recently "disappeared" and was replaced with a new one.

According to the register 68 patients have died since 2010.  

Only two of the four deaths in January were signed off by a medical doctor, he added.

Other claims include:

- That some patients are sometimes kept in solitary confinement with just a bucket for a toilet if they become "restless". Psychiatric guidelines stipulate that a patient may never be kept in solitary confinement for more than four hours.

- That a patient who was last month locked up in solitary confinement panicked, wrapped his legs in a sheet and set himself on fire;

- Medical doctor Theresa Nodliwa was forced to amend the notes she had made on a patient’s medical file by hospital CEO Ntombizandile Ngcume and other managerial staff, to make it appear that the patient had been examined twice.

Nodliwa has since asked for a transfer and did not want to discuss the matter with Rapport;

- Patients’ clothes are tattered, despite a clothing budget of millions of rands;

- Patients have to pay staff a R5 levy per withdrawal from the hospital account, to access the money their families send them; and

- The food patients are served is of poor quality. This includes a sardine stew that is served twice a week. It contains 36 cans of sardines, about one for every 10 patients.

Sukeri said there is no doctor on duty at the hospital on weekends. Last year, he began recommending that patients with serious medical conditions not be sent to Tower because of the lack of specialised medical care. However, Ngcume refused to implement this because the hospital would "get too few patients".

The conditions at Tower Hospital come just 18 months after Rapport wrote about the Life Esidimeni scandal.

In his reply to the debate on the State of the Nation Address last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa apologised for government’s handling of the Esidimeni tragedy.

A total of 143 mentally ill patients died after the Gauteng health department sent them to unaccredited NGOs, in an attempt to save money.

Sukeri said the government did not seem to have learnt any lessons from Esidemeni.

"We’ve been struggling with the same kind of problems in the Eastern Cape for years. I’ve been fighting for the rights of psychiatric patients for 12 years," said a tearful Sukeri.

He said more than 20 clinical personnel at Tower Hospital have resigned, asked for transfers or taken early retirement in the past five years.

On February 11, Sukeri laid complaints about the hospital’s conditions with the Health Ombudsman, the SA Human Rights Commission and the SA Society of Psychiatrists.

As a result, the hospital CEO told him to vacate his office.

Ngcume referred Rapport’s questions to Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo. He said the allegations of a falsified deaths register were untrue.

He said patients died from serious illnesses such as respiratory diseases, heart problems, cancer, tuberculosis and HIV.

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