Still no payout for paralysed woman

Thobeka Jantjies was left paralysed after an alleged botched dental procedure at a state hospital. With no wheelchair or compensation 19 years later, she’s attempted suicide several times.

An Eastern Cape woman has tried to kill herself three times after waiting nearly two decades for the provincial health department to settle her medical malpractice claim.

Thobeka Jantjies, 46, from Jeffrey’s Bay, went to East London’s Cecilia Makiwane state hospital in Mdantsane with a sore molar tooth in October 2002. Under local anaesthetic, one of the hospital dentists extracted the tooth. Jantjies started convulsing and became paralysed from the chest down. For several days, she also could not close her mouth.

Jantjies’ legs cannot bend at all, so she can’t sit. She has been confined to lying down in bed for the past 19 years. Jantjies attempted suicide twice in June, first by opening the door and trying to roll out of a moving car and then by slashing her wrists later that night. Neighbours saved her both times.

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She describes what happened 19 years ago when she underwent what should have been a simple medical procedure. “They pulled out my tooth and I had convulsions. My tongue turned back. I felt dizzy and could not stand. The nurses arranged an ambulance to take me home. My mouth did not close for three days and I was in pain, so my husband took me back. The nurses and doctors then tried everything to close my jaw. They were closing it with their hands and bandaged it closed around my face. It was so painful. The whole time I could not say a word because my tongue was swollen,” says Jantjies.

“When I arrived home, the bandage around my jaw was so tight that I was in pain. I went back and was told by another doctor that my jaw was apparently dislocated and should not have been bandaged closed. I stayed in hospital and eventually my jaw closed. It has been 19 years now and I have never walked again.”

Jantjies is incontinent. As her legs don’t bend and without a fully reclining wheelchair, Jantjies has to be carried on a stretcher she keeps in the corner of her bedroom when she wants to go anywhere. 

Seeking compensation 

A large file of documents shows that her husband, Thomas Jantjies, tried for years to get justice for his wife. Legal Aid turned him away twice. He reported the matter to the then hospital superintendent three times without success, and was initially rejected when he applied for a disability grant for her.

He took his wife to a consultation at a private rehabilitation hospital in Gqeberha in April 2005. There a doctor said the paralysis was probably the result of the tooth extraction. Thomas then hired lawyers to bring a claim of R3.35 million against the minister of health, the Eastern Cape member of the executive council for health and the superintendent-general of health in the province. Court papers show that the matter was scheduled for a hearing in the high court in Bhisho on 4 February 2008.

The papers show that “vital information contained in the hospital records as to what occurred from the date on which Mrs Jantjies first attended the hospital are missing”. The case never went ahead, Jantjies says, because the provincial health department offered a settlement of R500 000, which her husband rejected. Thomas and the health department were still negotiating a settlement when he had a stroke in 2014 and later died in March 2017.

“I panicked after my husband died. We had moved to an RDP house in Jeffrey’s Bay in 2009 but I had two small children and no money. I told the department I would accept the R500 000 but it was never paid,” says Jantjies.

The Jantjies’ neighbour, Thuleka Ngeleza, was an ANC councillor in Makhanda for 15 years. An experienced activist, Ngeleza has been trying to get justice for Jantjies for years. She and other activists got small businesses to donate cupboards and other items for the almost-empty house, which looks like a building site. Thomas was extending it when he had the stroke.

15 July 2021: Thuleka Ngeleza, a former ANC councillor and neighbour, has for years been trying to get justice for Jantjies.

“Thobeka was a businesswoman selling fruit, vegetables and meat before this happened. She had an income but now she and her children get only a disability grant and they cannot survive. She is traumatised and depressed,” says Ngeleza. “Her daughter now has two children of her own to look after. Wherever we can, we ask local small businesses to patch up pieces of her house. No government department ever comes to visit her. She is supposed to get Kimbies [adult nappies] from the clinic. But they just tell her son they don’t have Kimbies. There is not a single home-based care worker who ever comes to see Thobeka.” 

Jantjies cut her wrists with a razor in 2015, but survived. Her two most recent suicide attempts came after her neighbours hired a private car for R2 000 so she could go to an ANC provincial executive committee meeting in Qonce. She hoped to see Oscar Mabuyane, the premier of the Eastern Cape. “But the people there rudely told her she was in the wrong place and sent her to the health department where she was told to make an appointment after coming from Jeffrey’s Bay all the way to Bhisho [a distance of 320km] – just imagine,” Ngeleza says.

Irene Manana, another neighbour who helps Jantjies with bathing, found her the day after her suicide attempt. “I came to check on her. It was 7am and I got a shock because I saw blood on her blankets yet we had washed her the night before. I then found she had been cutting her arms. I arrived just in time.

Tyhini [exclamation of shock]. As a neighbour, I wish that she can get a suitable chair and not just be lying on the bed. She says she is waiting for death and she doesn’t even know what her house looks like,” says Manana.

“It is 19 years and nine months now,” says Jantjies. “Others must always clean me up. My heart is broken.” She thinks the health department is punishing her for having an activist husband who advocated for her.

Jantjies’ son, Anele Jantjies, 22, says, “I had to help out from the age of two, which was when this happened. The department just needs to compensate her to show her respect and calm her heart. I don’t know why they want to run away from their mistake.”

15 July 2021: Anele Jantjies, 22, prepares a stretcher for his mother.

Living with nothing

Jantjies has been in the media intermittently since 2002. The Daily Dispatch newspaper previously cited a medical expert, who did not want to be named, as saying that “negligence and failure to manage the situation were the most likely causes … A nerve was severed, probably because [Jantjies] suffered convulsions during the extraction.”

Despite this, and despite the department having previously offered R500 000 compensation, provincial health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo says Jantjies does not have a claim. “The late husband didn’t accept the offer while it was open to be accepted and as a result the offer was withdrawn on the understanding that if they pursued the matter in court, the state has a valid legal defence.”

Kupelo says the health department has medical reports proving Jantjies’ sudden paralysis during the tooth extraction was not the result of medical malpractice, but he did not produce the documents. He also claims the provincial health department helped the family by coordinating with “other government departments, including relocating the family from Mdantsane to Jeffrey’s Bay”. Jantjies says activists in the ANC arranged with the Kouga Municipality for her to be moved from her shack to an RDP house. The health department had nothing to do with it. 

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When asked why the provincial health department had not provided Jantjies with a lie-flat wheelchair so she could move around her house and garden, Kupelo said Jantjies was given an ordinary wheelchair after being assessed but she had asked for a motorised one instead. 

Jantjies says this is not true. She asked for a wheelchair she could use while lying on her back. Kupelo would not provide the assessment report, saying only, “Unfortunately, in terms of the assessment outcomes, she does not qualify for [that] type of wheelchair.”

Meanwhile, the Jantjies’ continue to live in a house with no ceilings and bare concrete floors and walls. The wind blows in through gaps in the roof. She frequently talks about killing herself to her neighbours who, with their acts of love and care, keep her alive. They are determined to rally around her until she receives the justice she deserves.

The Eastern Cape health department faces R29 billion in medical malpractice claims and has been slated for prolonging these cases. The Daily Maverick newspaper reported last year that the high court in Makhanda had described the department’s behaviour as “unwarranted”, “unacceptable” and “irresponsible” in the case of Siphesihle Mmoshi, 10, who was born with cerebral palsy after negligence during her birth and later choked to death before receiving compensation.

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