462 mental patients died in just over four years at Life Esidimeni care centres Death toll of 94 could rise by at least 22 patients, who lay unidentified in Tshwane mortuaries for months Election campaign meant Mahlangu was distracted for three months w
Disgraced Gauteng MEC for health Qedani Mahlangu’s senior staff knew as far back as July last year that mentally ill patients were dying in their dozens at the care centres in which they had been dumped. But Mahlangu only knew about the crisis a month later – because she had been busy campaigning for the August local government elections at Walter Sisulu House, the ANC’s provincial headquarters, situated 400 metres from her Sauer Street office.
And when the bodies started piling up, Mahlangu and Dr Makgabo Manamela, her director of mental health, accused Life Esidimeni Healthcare of “sabotage”.
“When Dr Manamela was told that patients were dying every day in some of the nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), she said: ‘Leave it, we know what to do,’” said a senior official attached to the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project, responsible for transferring the patients to the NGOs where they died.
Yesterday, it became apparent that the death toll of 94 patients calculated by health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba could rise by at least 22 patients, who lay unidentified in Tshwane mortuaries for months.
Batala Ketole of Ketole Funeral Undertakers in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria, confirmed yesterday to City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport, that about 14 unidentified bodies had been lying in storage at his facility for months.
He confirmed the bodies came from the Precious Angels home in Atteridgeville, where 20 patients out of the 57 who had been transferred there were confirmed to have died.
The bodies were brought to him by another undertaker, Put u 2 Rest, also in Atteridgeville.
This information was given to Makgoba, who yesterday said: “Yes, here it begins. I predicted in my report that many more bodies would be discovered. I know there are also nine more in a mortuary in Mamelodi.”
WHEN MAHLANGU RETURNED TO WORK
When Mahlangu returned to the office the Monday after the August 3 election, she visited the Precious Angels NGO, where 11 patients had already died.
Instead of removing the remaining patients, she instructed Dr Richard Lebethe, her acting director of forensic pathology, to conduct postmortems on the bodies.
The rest of the patients were left at the NGO, where nine more subsequently died. Mahlangu declined to comment on the allegations. However, a close confidante confirmed she only found out about the deaths in August last year.
“She was on the campaign trail from May to July. She only attended one meeting in July where she was informed that all patients had been placed in NGOs,” the confidante said.
She said Mahlangu “suspected sabotage” because Life Esidimeni had refused to hand over patients’ medical records when they were transferred.
“She felt that the decision by Life Esidimeni was intentional and meant to cause confusion,” the confidante said.
Most of the 1 180 patients transferred from Life Esidimeni to the 27 NGOs left without the files containing their medical history.
Gauteng’s department of health alleged during Makgoba’s probe that Life Esidimeni refused to hand over files, saying it might need the information should it ever be sued.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told City Press on Friday that he also initially believed the private healthcare group was deliberately sabotaging the state. “No doctor can transfer a patient without medical records,” he said. “Doctors are supposed to do a proper handover to each other, and in this particular case, these files were vital because sick and vulnerable patients were being transferred into the care of other people.
“So, when I learnt about this I thought Life Esidimeni was angry because the department terminated a long-standing contract with it, and therefore, it wanted to sabotage the state.” But Motsoaledi changed his mind when he read Makgoba’s findings that the transfer of patients was chaotic and rushed, and that some severely disabled patients were herded on to bakkies or strapped down with bed sheets during transit.
Makgoba also found that all 27 of the NGOs the patients were transferred to were operating illegally, and were not ready or prepared to care for them.
However, Dr Nilesh Patel, healthcare services operations executive at Life Esidimeni, denied the patients were discharged without records, saying staff “ensured every patient was transferred with sufficient information to provide for their continued care, treatment and rehabilitation”.
He said although rules of the Health Professions Council of SA prescribed that the original medical records “reside at Life Esidimeni for the duration of each patient’s life”, officials had “full and unrestricted access” to them.
He added that “transfer notes recording the latest on the patients’ diagnosis, condition, medication history, risk profile and any recent acute illness and investigation results” were given to officials, together with a list of patients’ special dietary requirements, their prescriptions – “up to 28 days of medication” – personal items, a set of clothing, and their family contact details.
HOW MANY PATIENTS DIED BEFORE
City Press has learnt that hundreds of patients died at Life Esidimeni before the remaining ones were transferred away from its centres in May last year.
Figures of patients who died between September 2011 and May 2016, which City Press obtained, show that 462 patients died of “natural causes” in five care centres run by Life Esidimeni.
Almost a quarter – or 109 patients – died in 2012 alone. In 2011, 130 people died there.
Mahlangu’s supporters are using these figures to explain the importance of terminating the Life Esidimeni contract and moving the patients elsewhere.