My findings are based on evidence – ombudsman
Damning report on mentally ill pieces together testimony of 73 witnesses
IF THERE’S one thing Professor Malegapuru Makgoba knows about himself, it’s that he’s a good listener. As a trained physician, he has to be.
For the health ombudsman’s damning investigation into the “chaotic” Life Esidimeni transfer, he sat down with 73 witnesses – families of the deceased, government officials, hospital officials, implicated NGOs and non-profits seeking justice, listening to their individual testimony.
“People don’t realise I’m a trained physician. I understand the art of listening to people tell stories. Through those stories, you go to the heart of the problem. You just have to listen well enough,” he said.
In his investigation into Life Esidimeni, there were a number of witnesses to listen to. “I was listening to 14 relatives of the deceased, 14 people from NGOs, 25 people from the Gauteng Health Department and nine from Life Esidimeni, and others.
“As Sir William Osler (an Oxford University physician) said: ‘Listen to your patient. He or she is telling you their diagnosis.’ Listening is my bread and butter.”
Makgoba’s damning report revealed that 94 mentally ill patients died from hunger, dehydration and lack of care following the controversial decision by the Gauteng health department to transfer 2 000 patients from various Life Esidimeni care homes, where they were receiving highly specialised chronic psychiatric care last year.
They were moved to 27 unlicensed NGOs, families and psychiatric hospitals, to save money and to de-institutionalise the mentally ill.
While some commentators have said the case was Makgoba’s “trial of fire” as the country’s first health ombudsman, his investigation was never about courage, nor fear of powerful politicians, he said.
Makgoba, 66, is a professor emeritus and the retired vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZuluNatal, whose c areer has helped direct SA’s policies on health. He holds a doctorate of philosophy in human immunogenetics from Oxford University and has the experience necessary to listen and put evidence together.
There was nothing unusual about the Life Esidimeni case that he hadn’t investigated before. “I’m a medical scientist. I’ve done research all my life. I’ve done so many investigations from 1980 and have done research at the best places in the world.
“I understand the process of investigating and the research so I was doing this investigation with the preparation I had for years.
“It was never about who I was dealing with. It was to investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of mentally ill patients. As scientists our conclusions are guided by evidence.”