Admin staff

Step inside Africa’s largest hospital as health workers and administrative staff walk out

Doctors at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital scrambled on Tuesday when they had to work without nurses, administrative clerks or service staff.

PHOTO: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images

  • Only emergency surgeries took place at Chris Hani Baragwanath University Hospital on Tuesday.
  • Unions affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the Federation of South African Trade Unions and the South African Federation of Trade Unions have downed tools for the third time this year.
  • Bhekisisa health reporter Jesse Copelyn was inside the hospital as doctors scrambled to help as many patients as possible without nurses, administrative clerks or service staff like plumbers.

We walk along a long walkway linking the internal medicine and pediatric departments of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

We are Tuesday, November 22 around 12:00 p.m. “We” are a medical intern, who works in Bara, and me.

Outside, people in union clothes hang out in front of the hospital’s main entrance. They blocked the entrance that morning. (It was still blocked when I arrived at 11am, so I used the staff entrance.)

It’s chaos inside Africa’s largest hospital. Doctors are working, but there are hardly any nurses. There are also very few administrative clerks or service staff, for example porters who move patients between wards or to theaters and back.

“Bara was a ghost town this morning,” says the intern, let’s call him Ronnie. He helped me get to the hospital.

READ | The non-renewal of the contracts of 800 health workers in Bara “has a cost”, warns Professor Mahdi

Hospital workers are on strike as part of the country’s third “national day of action” this year.

The strike was organized by public sector unions affiliated to South Africa’s main trade union federations, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Federation of Trade Unions and the Federation of South African Trade Unions. Unions are demanding a 10% wage increase for public sector workers. The government only offers 3%.

Doctors have not been asked to strike, but nurses have been pressured and intimidated to stay away from work, several hospital interns say.

“There were a bunch of union guys going to every ward to check that there were no nurses around,” Ronnie said, pulling out his phone to show me a photo of a man in red badges he had seen patrolling the halls of the hospital earlier. daytime.

He said:

A few nurses came because they were worried about their patients, especially if they were working with children. To avoid being identified, they disguised themselves as patients or civilians.

Outside one of the medical wards we meet another intern, let’s call her Layla. Layla says some of the nurses who came to work this morning locked themselves in the wards for fear of being found by union officials.

“They were so worried that they were chasing us [the doctors] get out of the room and lock yourself inside,” says Layla.

She looks nervous.

“Locking rooms could cause serious problems if emergencies arise,” she says, “because doctors would then have to start playing with keys to get into that room to get to their patients.”

Doctors left behind at the 3,200-bed facility have had to continue working – mostly without nurses. “Today I’ve been a nurse, I’m a cleaner, I’m a plumber, I’m a clerk and honestly, I don’t know what to do,” says another intern in the elective surgery unit. She talks to me simultaneously while recording the patient’s notes on a computer.

Not only did the strike put enormous pressure on the doctors in his department, but it also affected his patients.

The intern said:

It was decided this morning that any elective surgery [planned non-emergency procedures] would be canceled for the day as there are no nurses.

“Patients are frustrated, we booked them in for surgery today and when they arrived we had to tell them to go home.”

In fact, many of the hospital’s non-emergency patients were being sent home to relieve the remaining staff.

“A lot of people are being discharged and being told to come back tomorrow to get their chronic meds. But I don’t think a lot of them will be coming back, so I don’t know what the long-term ramifications of that will be” , said Layla.

Ronnie explains that many patients who were to stay in the country will suffer from compromised care.

READ | Baragwanath hospital runs out of food, nurses pool money to buy corn cobs for patients for lunch

“Some of the diabetic patients have to be constantly monitored and this is not really done at the moment,” he warns. “You have to watch their sugar levels carefully and give them insulin at very specific times.

“If there are not enough staff at night, it is very possible that their sugar levels will get out of control and they will have to be sent to an intensive care environment, and there is no enough personnel to operate these units.”

I leave Ronnie and rush to another section of the hospital where I meet an intern who works in the maternity ward. Here, doctors are frantically trying to figure out where the drugs their patients need are stored and how to prepare them.

“Doctors aren’t trained to mix drugs, nurses do, so we now spend 10 minutes googling how to do this, and then we spend another 10 minutes doing patient vital signs, which is usually done. by the nurses beforehand”, explains the intern.

The result? Processing delays.

Fifteen women gave birth in the admissions area because doctors couldn’t reach them in time, the intern said, the most he’s heard of since he started working at the hospital.

“I’m on autopilot. The best I can do is see and help as many people as possible.”

As I step out of the staff gate of the sprawling facility, there are few signs of the chaos going on inside the hospital. The picketers demonstrating at the hospital’s main entrance left, as did the journalists covering it.

But the exhausted doctors I spoke to stayed. They were afraid of the effect the strike might have in the long term.

In one of the pediatric wards, the nurses usually care for around 100 newborn babies every day.

If they don’t show up for the next shift, she worries, “It would be a disaster.”

This story was produced by Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism