My late step mum, Peliyawezi NyaChipeta Gondwe, was allergic to quinine (anti-malarial medication). Although this was clearly stated on her chart, a medical assistant at the Mchinji Hospital, in his own wisdom, decided to administer this to her “because this is the medication we use to treat malaria.” So she died. My father, of course, was a wreck. She had just travelled there for a quick visit to help out at the orphanage run by her uncle – you know, the one where Madonna’s David was adopted from.
Almost six years later, her one and only child, my little sister Faith Juliet Gondwe, caught pneumonia in the freezing Kaning’ina hills. The nurse at Mzuzu Central Hospital told her to “stop complaining like a baby, the pain killers will work just now” and (mis)diagnosed asthma, based on the shortness of breath. A medical assistant nearby suggested an x-ray… but the equipment in radiology was not working. So Faith (13) was sent home with an inhaler instead of an antibiotic. Several times they returned to the hospital as she was still in excruciating pain. They kept sending her home. On the fourth night she died in my father’s arms. Need I find you a descriptor for dad’s state of mind, dear reader?
Yesterday afternoon, dad fetched his younger brother, Douglas, from our village and took him to Mzuzu Central Hospital (no options after hours in Mzuzu). His legs were swollen and he had not been eating so he was very weak. In the emergency room, the nurse told the doctor she could not fetch the oxygen machine as she was still busy eating. She would put the drip in when she was done. Uncle was still alert at this time. But the doctor was alone and the ER was full so he asked dad to take him to the ward where there were more hands on deck.
By the time he got there, he barely registered a pulse. While the doctor rushed to get oxygen, uncle asked dad to take him to the bathroom but once there he could not get out of the wheelchair or respond. Another one died in dad’s arms. Out of nine siblings, he now has only two left.
The worst part of this is that my stories are not unique. Not at all. I have many many friends who can speak of having witnessed or suffered similar tragedies.
As if to put the cherry on top of this grotesque inedible cake of life in the Warm Heart of Africa, Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) even managed to lose us a sitting Head of State, Bingu wa Mutharika–the most shocking of our nation’s losses. This is not a system in trouble. This is a system that has collapsed.
Until we acknowledge this reality, we will continue to put a band-aid on the situation when deep surgery is what is really needed. Who else must die in Malawi to convince us that it is time for action?
Needless and avoidable deaths are the order of the day in Malawi. Citizens in rural areas have to travel for miles just to get to a health centre or clinic. Sometimes one wonders why they bother because, in many areas, the hospital is just a building, nothing more. Our hospitals are plagued by power blackouts, water shortages, staff shortages, medication shortages, malfunctioning equipment, specialist shortages, food shortages etc. District health officers are drowning under the pressure of providing basic meals to patients, let alone treatment for whatever ails them. Nurses and medical assistants are overworked and underpaid… and, in many cases, undertrained.
Every time my parents mention that they have a headache, my blood pressure rises. I panic. I start to think how quickly we can evacuate them to South Africa for treatment in case it gets serious. But why should we depend on the functioning systems of other nations?
Is this it? Is this what we have been reduced to? Dying like flies? Yes, we may wear the disgraceful label of being the poorest country in the world, but does this have to be synonymous with poverty of initiative? Are we Malawians really going to resign ourselves to this fate? When do we say enough of our family members have died for ridiculous reasons and start demanding some answers from our leaders?