Butterworth Hospital: A crisis in the making


Bakkie with Bed

Bakkies transport patients to the hospital because ambulances don’t arrive

It’s an uphill drive to Butterworth Hospital, a bustling, rambling, noisy, chaotic town on the N2 between Mthatha and East London. Coming from East London you turn left and head up a hill past dilapidated houses and blocks of flat with the big hospital building perched on a hill. Everything seems to happen slowly at Butterworth Hospital, from the security guard who strolls over with the visitors’ book, to the mostly overweight hospital staff who shuffle up and down the outside stairs and the men in various overalls sitting under a tree chewing the fat. These men’s (and for most visitors passing by) is a dumping site of waiting room chairs, hospital beds and other unknown objects.   The eyesore looks out of place at a hospital where one expects order, cleanliness and good practice. The dumpsite is across the path from the mortuary, a rectangular building with double doors at the front – where undertakers reverse their bakkies to load bodies – and a container refrigerator which is joined to the building by a small passage. On the day of our visit a gurney with a green, pyramid shaped tarpaulin straddles the passage between the building and the fridge.   An Avbob (undertaker) branded bakkie reverses up to the double doors. A man in a blue overall leaves the group under the tree and ambles over. Minutes later a body is loaded into the bakkie in full view of anyone around.A security guard napping under a carport shows no interest as we film some of the events.

Butterworth Morgue

Whistleblowers have reported that bodies pile up at the morgue

A single flower in a tiny vase sits on the bright blue cotton cloth atop a high table in a brightly lit room. Four old plastic chairs surround the table in the rectangular room.  A tranquil scene belying the often tragic use of this tiny room at the Butterworth Hospital Morgue.  It is here where family members come to collect the bodies of their loved ones. It is here where they receive the news of the death of a spouse, a mother, a sister. The family room, one of two, on opposite sides of a corridor that leads to the fridges that store bodies of people who have died at the hospital.  The morgue is slightly larger than the size of the apartheid style four-roomed houses. There are two fridges in the recesses of one wall, one on each side of the corridor.  In the dank interior of one fridge is a black body bag teetering precariously on one of the three shelves.  The fridge smells more of stagnant water than it does of death. It has a slightly rotting smell like when the electricity has gone off and the food in your fridge is starting to go off. In the second fridge lies a gruesome find. The disembodied head of a man protrudes carelessly from the body bag.  It appears he died a violent based on the number of bandages on his head.  His skin is grey. The sluice room, is large and elongated, with a sink on the right hand side and double doors that open to the outside world on the other end. A nursing trainee told us that the morgue is not ill-equipped for the number of people who die at the hospital. As a result, bodies are often piled one onto of the other in the hospital ward and hidden from view with a screen. Given the size of the morgue, her tale seems likely. Butterworth, is a large, multi-storey district hospital. The pale yellow eyesore is perched on a hill overlooking a graveyard below.

Butterworth Graveyard

This is the daytime scene. However, at night another nightmare unfolds. Our source reveals that while she was stationed at the hospital, patients were often subjected to the most atrocious conditions.  Lack of running water meant that patients were unable to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. Not only for lack of flushing water but also for fear of marauding bands of rats. When the lights went down and the nurses settled at their stations for the night, rats would descend from the ceilings and begin to feast on the soft soles of mostly helpless, immobile grannies. Activists based in the province brought this to the attention of the Hospital CEO, Mr Wezile Tshali in October 2017 and were assured that the rat infestation had been resolved. According to Mr Tshali, the old structure of the building and the material used for partitioning wards had been the cause of the infestation of mice and rats.  The partitioning comprised material filled with sawdust thus creating easy access for the rodents. He further reported that the hospital has used the services of a BBBEE compliant service provider who had delivered shoddy workmanship. However reports of the infestation prompted the hospital to review its Level Service Agreement with service providers and contractors. The CEO says he has now implemented a policy that payment is only made after inspections are completed and the hospital now undergoes fumigation on a quarterly basis.