This is not meant to be an Afro-pessimistic article. Don’t call me a racist or a counter-revolutionary (heaven forbid). It’s about a very real concern I have as someone living in a country with a public health system that’s falling apart.
This morning I had one of my semi-annual appendix scares. A sharp, vertical pain on my right lower abdomen that felt rigid to the touch. Fortunately it soon passed, as all such scares tend to do. My appendix is still firmly attached to my insides.
Now, I’m not a hypochondriac – no, really. But the one thing that terrifies me is the thought of my appendix filling up with … stuff and bursting, flooding my body with toxins. Hopefully I’ll end up in hospital sometime before the bursting part, but then I’ll have to undergo a painful operation and have a nasty scar afterwards.
It’s the uncertainty that gets me, never knowing when or where your appendix could go off. It could happen at anytime! During a stomach-pain panic I’d always think ahead to what events and appointments I’d miss, and start on back-up plans.
My fear probably has a lot to do with the fact that my mom had to leave my 7th birthday party rather suddenly to go to hospital and have her appendix out. And I remember a family friend of ours, who was about my age, having a perfectly ordinary Sunday until she started throwing up and had to be rushed off to be sliced open.
While reading about Dian Fossey, she of “Gorillas in the Mist fame” and who was immortalised by Sigourney Weaver on screen, I found out she’d had a prophylactic appendectomy done before she went to Africa (that’s when they remove your appendix “just in case. Apparently astronauts and people who spend months on bases in the Antarctic also have this procedure done).
See? The appendix is dangerous. And its unpredictability is the scariest part.
But is it? Because the thought that was uppermost in my mind as I stood poking my stomach was not the operation, the hospital, or the sick leave I’d have to take – it was having to go to a government hospital. You see, I don’t have medical aid.
When I graduated from varsity I not only received my degree, I was also summarily removed from my family’s medical aid. Because I’m a lowly intern and hardly earn enough to pay tax, I’m not on the company’s medical aid. My dad was grudgingly convinced that he should pay my fees for this year at least, so I went out in search of a good medical aid. I even went so far as to fill out forms for Discovery Health, but I’d heard so many bad stories about them (for example, one of my friends referred to them as “the big black hole money disappears into each month” after they refused to pay for her sister’s necessary and long-planned jaw operation) that I didn’t go through with it. Then I realised I’ve had the same doctor (and dentist, but he’s not so important) for almost the last 14 years, and the thought of finding a new one when I’m not even sure where I’ll be next year was a thought too overwhelming to contemplate. Also, I’m lazy, in case you haven’t figured this out by now.
I don’t even have a hospital plan, although I’ve long been considering one. My aunt was horrified when she found out I had no medical cover at all, and proceeded to relate a horror story of her friend’s brother who was in a car accident and had been lying in Tygerberg Hospital for three weeks. Here’s something I wasn’t aware of: you still have to pay when you go to a government hospital; they charge you according to your income. So this guy was thousands of rands in debt, and receiving a pretty low standard of care (and Tygerberg is supposed to be one of the better hospitals, shudder).
Let me confess to my utter white-middle-to-upper-class-privileged status by saying I don’t think I’d even set foot in a public hospital before I covered the recent public servants’ strike. Then I went to four: Natalspruit on the East Rand, Chris Hani Baragwanath in Soweto, Charlotte Maxeke Jo’burg Gen, and Kalafong in Attridgeville.
Out of all of those, I decided, I would most like to go to Charlotte Maxeke. I was least horrified by it when I went there. Then, while I was driving in from Pretoria this morning, I heard on the radio an update to this week’s story of allegations of gross incompetence at the Charlotte Maxeke high care unit. Two people phoned in to report that their family members had DIED in the high care unit at the hospital – as a direct result, they said, of low-quality standard of care. One woman’s daughter had died of septicaemia which she’d allegedly contracted in the hospital. Oh yes, and Charlotte Maxeke made headlines earlier this year for all those babies dying. Babies! Dying! And if this is going on in the hospital that’s supposed to be one of the better ones, I dread to think what the rest must be like.
My mother, bless her, would probably (ok, definitely) insist on taking me to a private hospital. I have no idea how much it would cost, but I’m going with a large amount. And I would feel so guilty doing that to my parents when they’ve done so much for me.
Yes, my white-middle-to-upper-class-privileged status does make me one of the lucky ones. I can afford hospital cover, I can afford medical aid. I’m filling out those forms right now because I refuse to die as a result of bloody government incompetence.
I have a choice. But what about those millions of people who don’t? They should not have to suffer at the hands of these institutions either. We need a better public health system – that’s the bottom line. Not an NHI which will effectively remove people’s right to choose (all the logistics are still being worked out, but one of the scenarios could see it becoming too expensive to be on medical aid for many people who are on it now), but a proper, functioning system where people’s rights to life and dignity are not taken away due to corruption, mismanagement, and general stuffed-up-ness. Can someone give me Clintèle Life’s number, please?
For a really moving story on Charlotte Maxeke hospital from 2007, read this.