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Doctors at one of KwaZulu-Natal’s largest hospitals have warned that they may close some of the operating theatres because of a severe shortage of theatre linen.
Several government hospitals in Durban are running short of clean theatre gowns and other critical linen because washing machines at the Department of Health’s largest provincial laundry have broken down.
The threat to close theatres came at Addington Hospital.
And while hospitals battle for clean linen, dirty bed sheets and other soiled Department of Health linen is piling up outside the laundry – and in some cases simply being dumped at landfill sites or being burned in open-air bonfires outside the laundry.
“This is a serious matter and the consequences thereof are fatal,” Addington Hospital systems manager CH Myeza warned in an e-mail sent to Diane Naidoo, head of the provincial Department of Health’s Regional Laundry (Durban and Coastal) in Sea Cow Lake.
Myeza complained that there had been no improvement, despite several complaints as well as visits to the regional laundry to try to rectify the problem.
“Your office should be prepared to handle imminent litigation as you have failed to support us as expected,” Myeza warned Naidoo in the e-mail message on August 7.
Two months ago, the relief agency the Gift of the Givers intervened by asking private manufacturers to donate towels, gowns, blankets and sheets to hospitals.
Gift of the Givers head Imtiaz Sooliman, who is also a medical doctor, said such a shortage of linen could have a devastating effect on patients’ lives.
“Linen shortage affects every aspect of a hospital. Let us just say the end result of not having linen is that the treatment of patients stops.”
Sooliman said he had been to many hospitals around the country and in KZN where he had seen at first hand how serious the shortage of linen was.
“The best solution is for each major hospital to have its own laundries,” Sooliman said.
“We cannot have a situation where broken washing machines at the central laundry affect many hospitals.”
The Durban and Coastal laundry, in Sea Cow Lake Road, is one of four provincial laundries. It serves 12 hospitals and nine clinics, including Addington, St Aidan’s and the Stanger General Hospital.
But, for several months, only one of its three washing machines has been working. The government’s supply of bleach disinfectant is also reported to be in short supply.
Naidoo confirmed to The Mercury that she had received Myeza’s e-mail, and said she had given instructions for some of the linen to be burned. She had been instructed by her seniors to destroy linen that been condemned by the hospitals.
“Maybe I made a mistake by burning the linen, for which I am sorry,” Naidoo said.
She said the washing machines were not being repaired or serviced because the laundry was to move to its new base at Prince Mshiyeni Hospital in Umlazi in two months.
She denied that the laundry had no bleach.
“We have always used stronger products… to remove the stains. But some of the stains are [so] serious that we have to rewash the linen,” she said.
Laundry employees, concerned about the wastage and the effect it is having on hospitals, have taken photographs of the loads of linen waiting to be placed in waste bins for collection by municipal dump trucks. They have also taken pictures of heaps of linen destroyed in bonfires.
They told The Mercury that the burning and dumping of linen had begun early this year because the laundry was battling to cope with the loads of washing sent by provincial hospitals.
Employees, who include washing machine operators, told The Mercury they were instructed to remove linen from the laundry building and place it outside in the sun and rain.
“As the loads keep piling up we have been told to burn it or load it into Durban Solid Waste bins,” said one employee.
“We have been questioning the management about this practice because this is clearly a waste of taxpayers’ money as most of the linen looks new”.
The provincial Department of Health head of the laundry service, Enock Ndlovu, said only unusable linen was destroyed. He confirmed that only one of three “tunnel washing machines” at Sea Cow Lake was working.
“New state-of-the-art equipment is being placed at an alternative laundry planned for commissioning in December 2012.”
Health Department spokesman Chris Maxon could not be reached last night to confirm whether any operations at Addington had been cancelled, or to explain what was being done to resolve the laundry crisis.