The family of a terminally ill cancer patient in East London in the Eastern Cape wants the health department to account for them waiting seven hours for an ambulance.
Charmaine Hensberg died on 25 August, on the eve of her 35th birthday, while waiting for the ambulance. Her family was unable to transport her and could not afford private ambulance fees.
John and Vanessa Lotter, Hensberg’s parents, said they made more than ten calls to the emergency call centre but no help arrived.
The provincial health department said in response that the service is under extreme pressure due to increases in Covid-19 infections.
‘Not fully operational’
According to the DA, only 300 of the province’s 440 ambulances are currently operational.
The Lotter family blames the failure of the public health system for the anguish their daughter faced in her final hours.
They say they made more than ten calls to emergency services when Hensberg was struggling to breathe. She is now survived by her husband, Dean, and two sons aged nine and 15.
The Lotter couple recounted the traumatic events of 25 August. They started calling for help after 09:00 and Hensberg died just before 16:00. They could not carry Hensberg to their vehicles to transport her to hospital themselves. She had been bedridden for a while. Her health started deteriorating in 2014 after she had been diagnosed with brain cancer. This led to her eventually being paralysed on the left side of her body.
“There’s nothing else that we could have done other than to wait for the ambulance because she required a stretcher to take her from the bed to the ambulance,” said Vanessa Lotter.
She added that stopped working last year to take care of her daughter full-time.
“As the country was starting to deal with the peak of Covid-19, we were dealing with Charmaine’s worsening condition.”
As Hensberg’s cancer progressed, she lost her eyesight and needed her mother to assist with hospice care like changing her diapers, bathing and feeding her.
John Lotter said that while the family was aware that Hensberg would die, they wanted her last moments to be peaceful. “We made so many phone calls to emergency services. My wife even screamed while I was on the phone with call centre personnel that we need urgent help, someone is dying.”
Lotter said they were given a reference number after the first call and despite informing the call centre of this during subsequent calls, no ambulance arrived. He said the family cannot afford private ambulance service fees.
“It’s not just about saving lives. Maybe my daughter was not going to be saved but it would have given us comfort if she died in the hands of healthcare professionals,” he said.
Following questions sent to the Eastern Cape department of health, it expressed condolences to the Lotter family and promised to investigate the incident.
Department head Dr Rolene Wagner said, “Our ambulance service has been under extreme pressure due to increased Covid-19 cases, and general trauma and injury cases. Protocol is that all calls are prioritised using a criteria based on the severity of the case. Should an ambulance be unavailable at the time of request, the caller is advised of the waiting time and given basic first aid guidance.”
DA Eastern Cape health shadow MEC Jane Cowley said the province was battling with an insufficient ambulance fleet for the growing population size.
She said they should have at least 650 ambulances but currently have 440, of which 300 are operational across the province. “Some of those ambulances are at hospitals around the province because they don’t have EMS personnel. We have vacancies and funded posts that the province is not filling due to financial constraints,” said Cowley.
The Lotter family say they are still considering whether to take legal recourse against the state for negligence.
This article was written for and originally published by GroundUp.