A year after the fire, little progress at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital

A year after the fire, little progress at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital2023 is the crunch year to complete the restoration of the fire-damaged sections of Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight
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Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (CMJAH) flat-lined on 17 April 2021, the day of the fire. A year later Johannesburg’s one-time premier public sector hospital is still fighting for its life.

On what should be a busy Friday morning this autumn, things are muted at the hospital that rises on the Parktown ridge and has been a landmark in the city since it opened its doors in 1979. There are no urgent wailing ambulance sirens or spinning emergency lights rushing patients to the hospital. Ambulances stopped coming a year ago when the casualty department closed. It hasn’t yet reopened.

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A lone security guard sits in the foyer area at casualty. Her only company for the morning is a sign for “porters” propped up against a wall.

Charlotte Maxeke Hospital’s casualty unit used to be world-renowned. Its expertise in managing high volumes of trauma cases successfully attracted trainees, visiting faculty and medical students from around the world. In turn the academic hospital was a training ground credited for polishing trauma doctors and surgeons many of whom went on to become world leaders in their fields.

Ostensibly, the hold-up for re-opening is because a broken CT scanner – a critical piece of equipment for trauma cases – cannot be fixed till a missing part is acquired. A year later this has not happened.

Missed deadlines

Ayanda Dakela, head of health facilities and infrastructure at the National Department of Health (NDoH), was tasked with overseeing the rebuilding project in February. It came after months of inaction and infighting between the Gauteng Department of Health (GDoH) and the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure and Development (GDID).

Responding to Spotlight’s questions, his office acknowledges incidents of vandalism and theft at the unit. “The CPU for the CT scanner was stolen and cables for the scanner were cut into pieces. Two distribution boards were stolen, and a few copper pipes were stolen.”

He adds that three GDID technical officials were arrested in connection with these crimes.

It all amounts to another missed deadline. In February, the hospital senior management and officials from the national and provincial health departments held a media conference confirming a reopening date for the unit for mid-March. Later this was shifted to April. At the end of April it is still closed.

Parking crisis

Back at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, it is the silence you notice first. But then you start joining the dots of how the lack of parking space is impacting the day-to-day running of the hospital.

The April fire broke out in the parking levels of the building and raced up the nine floors. These sections have been closed off. It means finding a parking spot is a scramble and even now there are no contingencies for alternative parking or shuttles to accommodate doctors, nurses, staff, patients or visitors.

Empty parking lot at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital
The parking lot where the fire started remains unused and unfixed. The consequence of having no parking facilities for doctors, staff, patients and visitors has emerged as one of the worst knock-on effects from the delays in getting Charlotte Maxeke Hospital back on its feet. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight

People mostly have to park outside the hospital campus. They double park and often obstruct traffic and park in front of hospital gates at CMJAH’s different entrances. At the main entrance people simply park in the incoming traffic lane, leaving vehicles that need to pass with no option but to drive into the oncoming traffic lanes. There is no space to make a U-turn and while Spotlight was there security made no effort to help prevent these jams.

Beyond being an irritation, the parking crisis means doctors can’t keep to schedules when they can’t find a parking; ill patients have to walk longer distances and patient transport is delayed.

Abandoned parking lot at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital
The unused parking lot where the fire started at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight

A patient navigator for oncology patients told Spotlight that some days she simply gives up trying to get into the hospital and resigns herself to try another day.

“You end up fighting with the security guards who just sit there and don’t help direct traffic. Then I give up because I have other appointments. But you feel bad because you know that you are carrying the files of people who need to start treatments as soon as possible,” she said.

Drain on morale

For staff already pushed to the limit after being at the forefront of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic the parking fiasco is the final straw. Morale is in a nosedive at Charlotte Maxeke and each month brings more doctors’ resignations.

A senior doctor summed it up to Spotlight: “You get frustrated when you can’t find a parking at the mall, now imagine that every day you come to work and that’s what you have to deal with. As you work you worry that your car has been stolen or broken into or that when you walk to your car after your shift and you might be robbed or attacked.”

Dirty stairwell at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital
A year later, clean-up of the hospital has been slow. Stairwells with peeling paint, garbage and debris have not been attended to. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight

Inside the hospital more failings become clear. While the main walkway, called Hospital Road, is busy with people connecting to different sections of the hospital, it’s now also a waiting area. In part it’s a measure to ensure patients keep to social distancing but it’s also because nine wards were closed down from the fire, meaning even corridors have had to be repurposed.

At the cardiology unit, out-patients are forced to wait in stairwells or on chairs lined up outside the elevator areas. It’s one of the specialist wards that is still only partially reopened.

Cancer backlogs continue

The oncology unit was out of operation for almost four months after the fire. Charlotte Maxeke was the only public hospital in Johannesburg where radiation treatment was available; the next closest facility being Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Tshwane, 55 kilometres away.

But reopening hasn’t cleared the backlog of patients who need treatment. The backlog have just kept enlarging. According to The Cancer Alliance, an alliance of cancer non-profits and activists, they have patients who have been on the waiting list for two years. Many die before they make their next appointment dates. They have also started to notice that patients’ cancers are returning, having fallen through the cracks for treatment during the months of the fire shutdown.

The Cancer Alliance has repeatedly warned that the unit was already buckling because of the unaddressed crisis of staff and equipment shortages mounting for years before the fire.

A Gauteng Department of Health press release in March said the province had invested over R500 million in the procurement of five Linac accelerator cancer treatment machines in the last two financial years. These are used for radiation beam treatment. However, the statement also went on to state that “a machine meant for CMJAH is yet to be commissioned”. The department also acknowledged that “CMJAH and Steve Biko Academic Hospital do not have enough human personnel to run all the machines at full capacity.”

Closed down wards

Whole wards at CMJAH are still closed down. It’s noticeable by the bright green scaffolding struts that start at the bottom floors at the parking areas and run up throughout affected sections of the building.

South African flag hangs off of green scaffolding in hall at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital
A South African flag that survived the fire still hangs amidst sentinels of green scaffolding. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight

Some sections like the psychiatric clinic have been abandoned. The walls here are still covered in soot and water marks. Hospital furniture and debris still fill the corridors. There’s just a handwritten note on the door that reads: “558 moved to Helen Joseph”.

Hall in psychiatric ward filled with chairs and debris
The psychiatric ward in Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital has been abandoned. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight

The knock-on effect is that Helen Joseph Hospital has been swamped with psychiatric patients and was forced to accommodate people in the emergency ward of the hospital that is not equipped to manage patients with psychoses. It became a risk to patients who could harm themselves, other patients and staff.

Hall in psychiatric ward filled with chairs and debris at Charlotte Maxeke
The psychiatric ward has been left as it was when it was evacuated during the fire on 17 April 2021. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight

In responding to specific questions about contingencies for psychiatric patients, Gauteng Health’s spokesperson Kwara Kekana only forwarded a press release dated 25 March presented as a joint statement by Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla and Gauteng MEC for Health Dr Nomathemba Mokgethi.

It states: “Helen Joseph Hospital has increased its mental healthcare bed capacity as well as repurposing a temporary structure to house more patients.”

It also “acknowledge[s] that this intervention is still not enough to address the increase in demand.”

Work continues

Meanwhile, the continued presence of the green temporary support structure looms as a constant reminder of the fact that a year after the fire much of the hospital remains on life-support. Rental costs for the scaffolding amounts to an estimated R5 to R8 million a month, according to a hospital insider. The company providing the structure, Viva Formwork and Scaffolding, gave notice at the end of March that it intended to remove the support structures citing non-payment by government. Since then, NDoH has said it has had to extend the contract with a new negotiated rate that will run until 15 May 2022.

But in the joint statement by the minister and MEC, the pair also acknowledged that the accrued debt in the province stands at R5.8 billion and dates as far back as 2013. They acknowledged that the debt “affects the cash flow of the department and our ability to pay suppliers on time.”

There are other signs that work has happened at a stuttered pace at best over the past year at CMJAH. The project to install fire doors is incomplete, leaving some areas without doors at all. The absence of fire doors or working fire doors was one of the key reasons given by fire fighters who spoke to Spotlight as to why the fire could not be contained and spread to cause the extensive damage that it did.

Hall in Charlotte Maxeke hospital showing lack of fire doors
The installation of new fire doors has started in some part of Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. But the project has not been completed with sections in the hospital with all its old doors removed but no replacements installed months later. PHOTO: Ufrieda Ho/Spotlight

Spotlight requested a copy of the outstanding structural engineering assessment report and the outstanding fire report. Dakela however, confirmed that this was only undertaken at the beginning of April this year and said a preliminary report is now expected by 15 May. He also revealed the puzzling fact that no fire report or assessment was actually conducted “by the Department of Infrastructure Development since April 2021 to date”.

Currently authorities put the work undertaken to extend to “deep cleaning of blocks one to eight, installation of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), health technology equipment, electronic fire detection, evacuation system and wet fire installations. Applications for Occupational Health Safety approvals and certificates have been submitted to the City of Johannesburg and are being processed.”

Their target now is for completion of work to take place as follows: Emergency Unit by April 2022 (already missed); Block 1 by March 2023; Block 2 by July 2023; Block 3 by October 2023; Block 4 by November 2023 and Block 5 by November 2023.

The estimated budget is just under R1.1 billion. This will be raised from the Development Bank of South Africa and National Treasury’s emergency budget. NGOs are also helping out – the Solidarity Fund is responsible for the compliance requirements of the Casualty Department, Gift of the Givers will work on the new stores facilities and the Spire Fund will work on a detailed assessment of areas in the hospital affected by the fire, the NDoH said.