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Real life story: Cancer patient tells of battle to get treatment from state hospital

  • Delayed Cancer Treatment: Sophia*, a 72-year-old domestic worker, faces a daunting battle against cancer and the struggle to receive treatment at Dora Nginza Hospital, with her condition worsening due to delays.
  • Despite her persistent efforts and the severity of her condition, Sophia* encounters numerous obstacles in accessing care, including being turned away multiple times and facing long waits for appointments.
  • In response the Eastern Cape Health Department emphasizes the critical role of early detection in effectively treating cancer, highlighting the financial and health impacts of delayed medical attention.
  • The EC Department of Health has invested in advanced cancer treatment equipment for tertiary hospitals, aiming to improve care for cancer patients in the Eastern Cape

When 72-year-old domestic worker Sophia* began experiencing constant vaginal bleeding and pain in her womb in July last year, she could hardly anticipate the daunting battle ahead.

This battle was not only against the cancer with which she was diagnosed but also to receive treatment from Dora Nginza Hospital in Gqeberha.

Nearly four months after her diagnosis of cancer in her womb area, and following several costly and unsuccessful attempts to consult doctors at the hospital or receive any treatment for her cancer, it has now spread to her lungs. Her first round of chemotherapy was only scheduled for this month.

Sophia* is a mother to four children, two sons and two daughters. In 2000, her oldest daughter was murdered by her boyfriend. Despite being extremely ill and weak, she takes care of her sick daughter at home. She is also the proud grandmother of seven and has seven great-grandchildren.

She initially dismissed the constant vaginal bleeding she started experiencing around July last year. However, when the bleeding persisted along with dizziness and pain in her womb area, she grew concerned and visited Dora Nginza Hospital in November last year. During her first visit, no scans were conducted; she was simply given pain medication and a follow-up appointment for December.

Upon her return in December, she was turned away and told to come back on January 4th, only to be sent away again because the doctors were on holiday.

After several more visits to Dora Nginza Hospital, she was referred to Livingston Hospital, where she says that she was treated with kindness for the first time. There, a blood test and a full-body MRI were conducted. Following this visit, she was informed that she had cancer in her womb area and was given an appointment at Dora Nginza Hospital to discuss treatment options or the possibility of surgery.

For the 72-year-old, getting to the hospital is not as simple as getting into a car and driving there; her day begins at 4 am to care for her sick daughter. Then, she prepares for her commute to Dora Nginza Hospital, aiming to arrive by 07:00. Despite arriving early, she often waits for hours, only to be turned away for various reasons, including missing files, pending results from Livingston Hospital, absence of doctors, or unrecognized public holidays.

Her commute involves four taxi trips, costing nearly R90. Typically, her visits are on Thursdays, but each time she is sent away, her next appointment is scheduled three to four weeks later. To date, she has not received any treatment during these visits.

 “I feel helpless, as though there is nothing else you can do besides just taking back your blue piece of paper and coming back on the next date given to you. You can’t do otherwise,” says Sophia*.

 Over the last few months, Sophia* has become significantly weaker, struggling to walk from her kitchen to the bathroom. She continues to experience constant dizziness, bleeding, loss of appetite, and fatigue.

When she returned to Dora Nginza on March 28th, hoping to see a doctor, she was turned away again, being told it was a public holiday. The staff at the hospital mentioned that Bhisho had given them the day off, and she was given a new appointment for April 4th. As before, she arrived early on April 4th, only to be told to go home because her results were not yet at the hospital. She was given another appointment for April 25th.

However, a phone call to the shadow MEC for Health secured her an earlier appointment on April 11th. Upon arriving on April 11th for her rescheduled appointment, she was informed by a nurse at Dora Nginza that the doctor could not attend to her as he was busy. After contacting the shadow MEC again, she was advised not to leave the hospital and to wait to be seen by the doctor. After a long wait and enduring excruciating pain, the hospital staff finally attended to her, moving her from one place to another and providing medication that would last only six days.

On April 18th, Sophia* was diagnosed with metastatic uterine cancer. She has a large tumor in her cervical area, and the latest scans revealed two spots on her lungs.

Her first chemotherapy appointment was set for yesterday, May 14. However, it had to be postponed again. The blood test they conducted showed that, due to all the blood loss, her red blood cell and iron levels were far too low. They wanted to admit her yesterday, but there was no bed available. The doctor also didn’t want to give her any chemotherapy as it would make her feel much worse. She needs to go back to the hospital today to receive chemotherapy; after that, she will be admitted and kept overnight to receive a blood transfusion. She was told that people were discharged yesterday, so there will be a bed available for her.

EC Department of Health spokesperson, Mkhululi Ndamase, said “the department always encourages people to seek medical attention as soon as they feel any discomfort or are unwell, so that they can be attended to by our dedicated and hardworking health professionals.

“When it comes to cancer treatment, early detection is always key. However, we have noted over the years that most people wait until the cancer has spread throughout the body before seeking medical attention. Because most people present late to health facilities, with the cancer having already spread, the department ends up spending R100,000 on radiation therapy per person. On average, the department performs radiation therapy on 350 people a year.

“This shows that most people do not immediately seek medical attention. We cannot overemphasize the importance of early detection enough, so that the cancer can be effectively treated. The department is committed to providing quality health care services for the people of the Eastern Cape, including cancer patients,” said Ndamase.

According to Ndamase, to this end, the department has recently purchased state-of-the-art cancer treatment equipment for their tertiary hospitals. These include Livingstone Hospital in Gqeberha, Frere Hospital in East London, and Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha.

The recently purchased cancer treatment equipment includes linac accelerators for the three hospitals, which cost R60 million each. The department also bought CT scanners at R37 million each for the three facilities, and fluoroscopy units at R10 million. Furthermore, the department is building a state-of-the-art oncology unit at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital. “The department has invested R412 million in this project, which will ensure cancer patients from the eastern part of the province don’t have to travel to East London and Gqeberha for treatment,” said Mkhululi Ndamase.

* Sophia is not her real name, in an effort to protect her identity. 

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