Johannesburg - A woman who was misdiagnosed with breast cancer and given a double mastectomy has won a R2.8 million damages case.
But Estelle Kunneke’s nine-year battle to get the Limpopo Department of Health to compensate her for the trauma she endured will not bring back her body or her self-esteem.
In 2005 Kunneke’s world crashed around her. A doctor at the Limpopo Academic Hospital diagnosed her with breast cancer and performed a double mastectomy. She then underwent chemotherapy.
But on a hunch, she visited a different hospital for a second opinion.
Doctors there broke even more devastating news to her – she had never had cancer.
Three rounds of chemotherapy later and with both her breasts removed, Kunneke was shattered.
She sued the Limpopo Department of Health for medical negligence and this week was awarded R2.8m in damages in the North Gauteng High Court.
“I fought this hard for nine years so that others don’t have to go through the same thing,” said the 50-year-old mother from Rustenburg, whose breasts were mutilated in the “mastectomy”.
“No amount of money can take away the pain and trauma I have endured for all these years. I initiated this case for justice. All I want is for women to know that they too have rights. Long gone are the days when public hospitals treat people differently and push them around like cattle,” she said.
An emotional Kunneke wept uncontrollably yesterday, describing herself as unattractive “especially since it is Valentine’s Day today. I can’t even go outside without people staring at me and wondering if I am a woman or a man. I’ve lost all my confidence. I can’t even have reconstruction surgery to fix this mess. The muscles are gone. It is just bone and skin.”
The beautician and former model said she was now working on a charity clothing line to assist cancer patients and survivors. “There are plenty of women out there who actually have cancer. If I can’t help them win the battle the least I can do is help them die with dignity,” she said.
Kunneke’s ordeal began after an incident at her home in early 2005 when she fell and bruised her breast.
Later, when she felt a lump, Kunneke insisted on a mammogram.
She consulted a doctor at the Voortrekker Hospital in Mokopane and was later referred to the Oncology Centre at the Limpopo Academic Hospital.
While there, a GP, under the guise of an oncology specialist, examined her and informed her that she was at stage four of breast cancer and needed to undergo a double mastectomy.
Previously her sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
A sad Kunneke said a biopsy was never performed. The doctor only performed a needle aspiration. During chemotherapy, when she realised that she wasn’t getting worse as she expected, she went for a second opinion. And what that doctor had to say floored her. There was not an ounce of cancer in her body – there never was.
“I wanted to commit suicide when I heard this. I asked God so many times: ‘Why me? Why me, for heaven’s sake?’”
She explained that she thought her initial doctor had been a qualified specialist.
Kunneke said she felt hurt every day because her breasts had been removed for no reason.
“The surgeon was a Cuban doctor whom I hardly understood. He just chopped them off. Just like that.”
But that was not all. As a result of the “cancer” diagnosis, Kunneke’s family life fell apart.
She said her son disappeared as he “couldn’t deal with the fact that his mother was dying” while her husband drank heavily and couldn’t cope, and her youngest daughter had to “baby-sit her”.
“I went through so many emotions. I still do. I have been angry, guilty and ashamed. I will never forget. But through it all my mother, husband and children have been my rock,” she said.
In hindsight Kunneke said if she still had it in her to fight on, she would also pursue legal action against the doctor and surgeon for what they had done to her.
“I know that doctors work hard and that their duty is to save lives. But they have changed my life for the worst,” she said.
Kunneke’s attorney, Jean-Paul Rudd of Adams and Adams, highlighted the importance of obtaining a second opinion and pursuing legal action at the right time.
Rudd explained that Kunneke was subjected to three lengthy trials because she had laid the complaint years after the operation had happened. The requirement is to lay a complaint within the first six months after a medical procedure.
“We had to establish whether there was a prescription or not. We also dealt with the liability of state which meant that Estelle was entitled to 80 percent of damages against the state,” Rudd said. The third trial dealt with the money (the settlement) that had to be paid out to Kunneke.
Rudd said the trial showed that the level of service at public hospitals was shocking.
“This judgment gave rise to people knowing that they have legal recourse at the end of the day,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kunneke said she was ready to move on “one step at a time”.
“We must take a good look at our provincial hospitals. Too many people are dying there,” she said. - The Saturday Star