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Updated 01 April 2014

Ten minutes on a bridge in Khayelitsha

It took a scary ten minutes waiting on the N2 off-ramp at Khayelitsha on Saturday to make Susan Erasmus realise that we really do need the NHI. Here’s why.

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It took a scary ten minutes waiting on the N2 off-ramp at Khayelitsha on Saturday afternoon to make me realise that we really do need National Health Insurance.

Here’s what went down.

I get a Please Call Me message from Lungi, my domestic worker of seven years. She is not in the habit of contacting me after hours, let alone on a weekend. I call her, and I can hear something is seriously wrong.

She says she knows it’s not the end of the month yet, but can I please pay her, because she is having a crisis. I had already paid her electronically, but it takes a day or two to go through as we are not clients at the same bank.

Her 16-year-old son has collapsed. She took him to the Day Clinic, but apparently if you’re not actually gushing blood, you get shifted to the end of the queue or sent home. They had already been to the Clinic earlier in the week, and they gave him six white painkillers, which didn’t work.

This is a child who had a kidney stone removed last year, so he is no stranger to extreme pain and discomfort.

She needs money urgently to take him to a private GP and she desperately needs the cash to do this. You can’t just present yourself at the hospital without a doctor’s letter.

I draw R600 out of my credit card, and drive to the Mew way exit on the N2. I used to work in the area, so am familiar with street names, but am not keen to be driving around aimlessly and getting lost. The area has changed so much in the last twenty years.

Off to the private GP
We agree to meet on the bridge. She arrives with ashen-faced youngster in tow. Half the money I give her, the rest is a loan. They get back into the taxi and off they go to the private GP, who charges a very reasonable R180 for a consultation. Reasonable to me, that is. To most of the people living in Site B, it wouldn’t be, but hey, the doctor needs to make a living too.

To cut a long story short, the doctor takes one look at the boy, and organises to have him admitted to the Khayelitsha District Hospital, where the urologist on duty schedules him for not one, but two operations. One for complications with kidney stones and the other an emergency appendectomy.  In fact, if they had waited, he might well have died, according to the doctor.

There is no available bed for him, but they do the double op anyway and he is now sitting upright in a comfortable chair. Main thing, though, he is alive, smiling, and pain-free for the first time in a long while. Five stars to the doctor on duty, who according to Lungi doesn’t look a day older than 24. but he has to be at least 30 if he is a qualified urologist.

The NHI and why we need it
Back to the proposed National Health Insurance. I have always had my doubts about this, based on the enormity of the amount needed to achieve this. And the logistics and staff shortages. And the fact that if state hospitals are in a shambles, few people would have the faith in the state to implement this new system successfully.

What the solution is, I don’t know. Fortunately on Saturday I heard the phone, and was at home and had money to draw. If this boy didn’t have such a dedicated  and determined mother who simply would not give up or take no for an answer, he might well be dead.

This is precisely the kind of situation that the proposed NHI seeks to prevent – that someone could die because of not having R180 for a private doctor on a Saturday afternoon.

Now we just need to find a way in which to achieve this. And therein lies the rub.

Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer for Health24.

 
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