Durban - A family are on a quest to find out what happened to the body of their loved one – almost two decades after being told it had been “donated” to a local university.
When Westridge domestic worker Nonhlanhla Phyllis Magwaza died in hospital in 1994, her family could not bury her, because the body was allegedly taken to the then University of Natal’s medical school for research and training purposes.
Relatives claimed they had demanded at the time that the university return the body, because it had been donated without their consent and went against their religious and cultural beliefs. But when a university official allegedly demanded R6 000 to release it, they gave up because they could not raise the money.
Eighteen years later, they want answers, closure – and compensation.
The family secured the services of Pietermaritzburg attorney Sundeep Singh through the NGO Patient First to help them get answers and, if possible, to get her remains back for burial.
“The family approached our offices for help. With the help of the attorney we are investigating who released the body from the hospital and where it went to,” said Nuh Ngwane, the project officer at Patient First, which fights for patients’ rights. “There was no agreement with the family to donate the body to the medical school. It seems like the body was stolen.”
Singh said he had had long discussions with the Magwaza family. “They want closure and compensation,” he said. “All avenues will be investigated. But the main priority is to try and find out what happened to the body.”
Complicating matters is a denial by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) that any record existed of Magwaza’s body being registered as a cadaver in 1994.
And, according to Department of Home Affairs records, Magwaza is still alive, because her death was never registered. Her records show she is 53 years old and unmarried.
Magwaza’s ID, given to the family by the hospital, was also not endorsed as deceased. Department spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said it was the responsibility of the family to inform the department of Magwaza’s death.
In 1994, Magwaza was admitted to King Edward VIII Hospital after taking ill at work. She had been employed as a domestic worker in Westridge. Her cousin, Sidney Magwaza, said they had not been told by her employers that she had taken ill.
“Nonhlanhla worked and stayed in the Westridge area. One of her friends, who worked in the same area, told us she was in hospital.”
Magwaza said he phoned the hospital and was told that his cousin had died.
“The hospital told me to check for her body at the government mortuary. When I contacted the mortuary, they told me her body had been donated to the University of Durban-Westville.”
He said the university referred him to the medical school. “When I phoned the medical school, a man said the body was there, but I had to pay R6 000 to get it back.”
Magwaza said he had approached elders in the family to try and find a solution.
“No one had the means to offer financial assistance. I had no choice but to leave it alone.”
He said her children never got closure.
“If their mother’s body was used for medical research, then many doctors would have gained valuable knowledge. The family should be compensated in some way.”
Professor William Daniels, dean of the school of laboratory medicine and medical sciences at UKZN, said it was law that all cadavers were registered.
The provincial Health Department failed to answer questions put to it by the Daily News, saying in a one-line statement that the family should liaise directly with the department. - Daily News