The Horror Inside Eastern Cape Hospitals

Ray Hartle


First Published Sunday, June 18 2023 in:

Twenty-seven-year-old East London teacher Zimbini* was very excited when she fell pregnant in 2022 and looked forward to the birth of her son.

“Part of me wanted to be pregnant only once I was married, but I felt that I was 27 and working, so it was fine. I was really looking forward to the baby,” she told City Press. 

However, excitement turned to horror after she was admitted to the city’s Frere hospital in April this year. First the maternity doctors kept her in an induced labour state for two days. Then they left her waiting for three hours at the door of the department’s only operating theatre because Caesarean section deliveries were backed up.

Once she was finally in theatre, they struggled to deliver her baby, resulting in it being stillborn. 

Then, due to her bleeding on the operating table, doctors performed a subtotal hysterectomy, removing her womb. Zimbini spent weeks recovering in the hospital and also had to undergo dialysis, since her kidneys had been damaged due to the loss of blood.

Her horrific experience is the latest botched birthing procedure in an Eastern Cape hospital, coming to light in the week that government started shepherding the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill through Parliament. 

Eastern Cape facilities are among the worst in the countrywide malaise that is state-funded health. 

The province has a contingent liability of almost R40 billion for medico-legal claims arising from staff negligence, particularly in the treatment of pregnant women and infants being born with cerebral palsy due to brain damage.


Zimbini’s case shows that patients admitted to a tertiary hospital in a large urban metro are not immune from infrastructural shortcomings, egregious negligence or wilful disregard of a patient’s critical condition.

Nurses at a clinic a short drive away from Frere had referred her to the hospital for immediate admission on Monday, April 17, after realising that her blood pressure had risen.

Two days later, the hospital’s maternity staff began inducing labour. Another two days passed without any progress in it.

I was worried that my pains weren’t going away. The nurses said the baby’s heart was beating well, but in the notes in my folder, which I saw much later, they’d written that the reading on the cardiotocography [CTG, which measures the foetal heartbeat] was poor.

Only on the Friday did a doctor decide that Zimbini needed a Caesarean section to deliver her baby, but she had to wait outside the operating theatre doors behind other patients in the queue.

A shortage of CTG machines – two were being rotated among six patients at the time Zimbini was induced – and the bottleneck in the maternity theatre were both confirmed to City Press by a Frere staff member.

“I wasn’t in a good state of mind,” recalled Zimbini. “They gave me an injection for pain. I heard the doctor telling others in the theatre that the baby didn’t want to come out – it was stuck. After that, the lights went out for me.”

Zimbini woke up in the intensive care unit the following morning, when doctors explained to her that the baby’s head had been ready for a natural delivery while the doctor had been performing a Caesarian section.

“The doctor said the baby had eventually become tired as they were trying to pull him out and by the time they did that, he’d already passed away.”

While stitching up her wound, doctors had noticed her bleeding. 

“They reopened my abdomen three times to stop the bleeding. My skin was turning grey, I was very cold and my blood pressure and sugar levels were going down. I was bleeding nonstop. I was dying. 

“They opened me up one last time when they made the decision to remove my womb,” she said.

In the weeks that she continued to recover in hospital, Zimbini felt that senior department staff were not fully honest with her about what happened in the operating theatre. She also suspected that they were treating her with kid gloves, fearing that she might initiate a claim for medical negligence against the hospital.

“From the time of my admission, everything was fine. The sisters were there for me and every other patient. The problem was the long wait outside the theatre. If I’d been taken straight into it without having to wait, my baby wouldn’t have become tired or been distressed. He would have survived,” she said.

Having compared her Caesarean scar with the scar on her sister’s body, she was also concerned that her cut was done incorrectly – something which was also suggested to her by a Frere doctor, whose name is known to City Press.

“My sister’s scar is right over her abdomen. My cut’s slightly higher up, at the beginning of my stomach,” said Zimbini.

She also said that she had been told by Frere obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Mfundo Feketshane that he was investigating the treatment she had received. 

However, Feketshane told City Press he had had no role in investigating Zimbini’s experience and the stillbirth of her son. He had only met her during ward rounds.

Zimbini was taken to see a private psychologist by the head of the maternity department Dr Nonkosi Selanto-Chairman after a session with a hospital social worker, which she said was not “fruitful”. 

At the time of going to print, Selanto-Chairman had not responded to requests for comment left with a receptionist at her private obstetric-gynaecological practice.

A weeping Zimbini told City Press: 

I feel as if I’ve been robbed of the chance of becoming a mother. I’m so broken – I just feel empty.

“Maybe I’ll get better, but for now, I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Spokesperson for the EC health department Yonela Dekeda confirmed that Zimbini had been referred from Braelyn clinic and admitted to Frere on April 17.

“The department can’t go into the details of her condition due to confidentiality restrictions and our sensitivity to her loss. It’s never easy dealing with the loss of a baby and our department remains committed to providing her and her family support during this difficult time, as required,” she said.

Health department head Dr Rolene Wagner and senior communications manager Siyanda Manana were copied on City Press’ requests for comment. 

* Not her real name

The Horror Inside Eastern Cape Hospitals

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