It’s mid-day on Thursday and the Ndemere family stands huddled under a small tree at the car park at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare.
By Phyllis Mbanje
On the hospital stretcher bed Learnmore Ndemere (48) lies prostrate, breathing heavily. Beads of sweat roll down his forehead into his eyes. He wearily blinks them away, his arms are too heavy and they rest weakly at his sides.
His family look on, helplessly. Learnmore has just been turned away from the hospital casualty department because there is no doctor to attend to him. He is suffering from a serious heart condition.
Since September his family has been faithfully ferrying him to the hospital using hired transport each time his condition worsened. This time his condition is worse than ever before and he can no longer walk.
His father who politely asks this reporter not to write his name is wearing a dark suit which matches his mood. He is gutted by the turn of events. He struggles but fails to understand why his son is dying right in front of the country’s biggest hospital.
“I do not understand this madness. My son is not fit to be taken back home. What are we supposed to do for him under such circumstances?”
Ndemere’s father uses riddles to explain the doctors’ standoff with their employer.
“It’s like a child who goes to her father and asks for bread and the father takes a small piece and gives her and the father rushes to the neighbour to urgently look for more bread and rush back home. Am sure you understand me. These children (doctors) are not wrong to ask for what is due to them,” he said.
Learnmore’s wife is beside herself with worry. Her husband’s sickness is taking a toll on her. She refuses to speak on camera but agrees to tell her story.
“We brought him here end of September. It was during those days that the strike by doctors started. When we got here it was on a Monday and his medical record was stamped and an X-ray was taken,” she recalls.
But they failed to see a doctor that day.
“We could not find one. We came for two more days but to no avail. We went back home and stayed with him in the same condition. We did not have money for transport to keep coming back to the hospital. Resources had all been exhausted by the many trips,” she said.
But Learnmore’s condition got serious as days passed. Initially he could walk on his own, but as his health deteriorated, he could no longer walk without assistance.
Desperate, the family scrounged for a bit of money and took him to a private doctor where they were charged very high fees. The doctor then said an echocardiogram (echo) should be taken. An Echo is a graphic outline of the heart’s movement.
To cut costs, the family decided to go back to Parirenyatwa for the echo tests, but the situation at the hospital had not changed. In fact, it had become worse as there was not even a doctor in sight at the Casualty Department this time.
“We came back but there was no assistance. The day before yesterday they said we were late, the only available doctor had already left. We were advised to come on Thursday. So today we are here, but the doctor is not there again,” Learnmore’s mother chipped in.
The family had also been advised that they need to make a booking for the Echo test but the cost was the RTGS equivalent of US$120, a far cry from what they could possibly raise as a family.
“So now we are in a dilemma, the doctor is not here and also we can’t afford the money for the tests,” Learnmore’s mother said with tears welling up in her eyes.
As The Standard team spoke to the family, a young man approached and asked if he could pray for Learnmore. The family agreed.
As they bowed their heads in prayer with a stranger who had nothing else to offer but his faith, it became apparent that the situation in the public hospitals had reached another level — a point where divine intervention has become the only hope.
The doctors’ impasse with their employer is likely to drag on especially after the employer has taken the doctors to court where the doctors’ action was declared illegal. On Friday the High Court gave the doctors 48 hours to return to work, failure of which they would face disciplinary action.
However, the doctors are not relenting. Acting secretary-general Tawanda Zvakada said after the court ruling the doctors remained incapacitated to return to work, even if they wanted to act on the order.
“Doctors are still incapacitated. It does not change anything. We want to go back to work but we are unable to do so,” he said.
In a previous statement the senior doctors said they could no longer watch patients dying simply because they did not have adequate tools and medicines.
They said as long as fundamentals for safe provision for healthcare were not in place, they would be forced to watch patients die from avoidable conditions. They described the hospitals as dysfunctional, overcrowded and unhygienic.
The nurses, who have also joined in the strike raised the same issues saying they were now overwhelmed since the doctors went away and could no longer handle patients on their own.
The nurses, who demonstrated in the corridors at Parirenyatwa Hospital, were angry that their employer was failing to cushion them adequately, scoffing at the 60% increment which they said had already been eroded by the sharp increases of prices of basic commodities.
Meanwhile, the health ministry has remained mum over the development with sources suggesting that they were waiting for the court ruling and now it remains to be seen what course of action they will take.