How did an otherwise healthy man with a broken leg end up dead in a hospital ceiling?

In the end, it was the smell that gave it away.

Sandile Sibiya had come to Durban’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital with a broken femur on 10 May. But days later and as Sibiya was set to be transferred to the nearby Addington Hosptial to see an orthopaedic doctor, the man from Amatoti was nowhere to be found.

Security staff scoured the hospital grounds, said the KwaZulu-Natal health department this week. With nowhere else to look it seemed, staff opened a missing person’s case to the South African Police Department.

Until someone stumbled upon a hospital closet and a suspicious leak.

“An unbearable stench intensified at the hospital,” newly appointed KZN health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu said in what is one of her first statements as MEC.

“Eventually,” she continued, “it led to the storeroom, where fluid dripping from the ceiling provided the tell-tale signs that something was amiss.”

She added: “The search eventually led to the decomposed body”.

Although initial media reports claimed that Sibiya was a mental health patient at the hospital, the health department says this is untrue. Now, the race is on to find out why an otherwise healthy man — a builder no less — with a broken leg would end up dead among the ceiling panels of the seaside hospital.

It was a grim welcome to her new position for Simelane-Zulu, just a week on the job.

State forensic services will be performing an autopsy on the body, before delivering a report to his family. Meanwhile, the health department expects to release its preliminary findings on the incident Friday. The police have also opened a docket in relation to the case.

While the mystery around the discovery continues to swirl, the KZN health department insists that its hospitals have tight security measures in place with a security guard in every unit.

For instance, runaway patients, it argues, would only go unnoticed if they were to slip into normal clothes during busy visiting hours.

But a 2016/17 report from the health oversight body, the Office of Health Standards Compliance (OHSC) found that provincial hospitals in the Kwazulu-Natal only met half of its safety and security standards for health facilities. Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital, however, was not among those facilities surveyed as part of the report.

The report found that a number of hospitals and clinics did not have a security policy in place and that often there was no record of how security incidents were resolved.

Strangely enough, Sibiya is at least the second patient to be found dead and among the rafters in a South African public hospital in the last two years.

In 2017, IOL reported that 61-year-old Teteteke Gqotsi was found dead at the Stellenbosch Hospital. At the time, Gqotsi’s family said it was unlikely that the man had even been able to walk unsupported at the time.

“He disappeared under their own guard and was subsequently found in their facility in an area he couldn’t have accessed by himself”, his family told IOL. “All we wanted was for him to get help.”

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Nelisiwe Msomi
Nelisiwe Msomi

Nelisiwe Msomi is a Junior journalist at Bhekisisa. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Johannesburg. 

Previously, Msomi was a volunteer member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s media team and started off her career as an intern at Bhekisisa.

She has an interest in how government policies affect the ordinary person walking on Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge and hopes to one day find a solution to long 6 am clinic queues.

"I have always seen journalism as a means of making the world a better place. Being part of Bhekisisa allows me to do just that, especially through the practice of solution based journalism. I believe that the work we do as journalist paves the path for better service delivery in our continent," she says.

Bhekisisa team
Bhekisisa Team
Health features and news from across Africa by Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian's health journalism centre.
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