Helicopter flip defended

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The use of a helicopter to transport MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo (pictured) instead of attending to a critically injured teen, has been defended. File photo: Doctor Ngcobo

KwaZulu-Natal - KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo, speaking for the first time on his use of Durban’s only medical helicopter, this week did little to clarify the series of events surrounding his contentious flip and instead, accused paramedics of mistreating a dying Asheen Maharaj, 15.

Dhlomo came under fire after he used a specialised medical helicopter, leased by the department, which was needed to airlift Asheen from an accident near Shongweni on November 3.

Paramedics were told that another chopper would be sent from Richards Bay and would take half an hour to arrive. They chose to rush the teen to hospital by ambulance.

The accident claimed the lives of Asheen’s parents and sister. He was declared brain dead and died days later.

The beleaguered MEC had purportedly used the helicopter to fly to Hlabisa to quell a community uprising after health-care workers – who live on hospital grounds – had let schoolgirls drink at their residences during school hours.

Breaking his four-week silence on the issue, the MEC provided a scant account of his mystery flight. In his address, he shifted blame to the paramedics who treated Asheen, questioning their decision to transport him to the province’s foremost hospital, Inkosi Albert Luthuli, which was further from the scene than some other less specialised facilities.

His use of the helicopter, and his failure to disclose explicit details surrounding the flight, revealed exclusively by the Sunday Tribune, drew widespread criticism from political opposition.

In a statement to the legislature, Dhlomo said the mayor of Hlabisa had brought to his attention a burgeoning crisis a week before his controversial helicopter flip. “During the week, I was monitoring the developments in relation to this matter. The situation was very uncertain and fears of attack to the hospital [sic] were rising,” he said.

He said because of his intercession, a crisis at Hlabisa Provincial Hospital was averted. “I have not heard of any unrest, attacks or community uprisings at Hlabisa Municipality following this incident and this can be attributed to the addressing of the community on the 3rd of November,” he added.

In contrast, police spokesman Thulani Zwane said that no reports of public violence had been reported three weeks ago. He said police were unaware of threats to the hospital and its staff.

Dhlomo said he came to know of the gathering and made the decision to use the helicopter to travel there.

He showed SMS correspondence between himself and his bodyguard, including a picture of an SMS on his cellphone, aimed at refuting claims that the medical chopper was used for longer than necessary.

While the MEC stated that the helicopter had arrived to fetch him at 11am, an air traffic controller at King Shaka International Airport, who asked not to be named, said the chopper had departed at 8.38am and that the destination had been listed as Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital. “There are no details of a flight plan on our system. All that has been logged is when the aircraft departed,” she said.

A source at the state hospital said the helicopter landed and collected the MEC at 9am. Between 9am and noon, when he arrived at Hlabisa, his whereabouts and that of the helicopter remain unknown.

He said that attending the funeral of Zacharia Zungu, late husband of Hlabisa hospital manager Dawn Zungu, was “opportune”.

“We had a community that was getting agitated and this same community was going to be present at the funeral venue. It was opportune to address them there.

“It was never my intention to fly to Hlabisa to attend the funeral,” he said.

“At no time during the flight did the pilot get information or an instruction to change course and fly to the area of the accident, nor was there any refusal by the pilot to change course as a result of an instruction from me,” Dhlomo added.

He said that his use of the helicopter was not out of line, and non-medical use of the air ambulance was included in their contract with medical service provider Air Mercy Services.

In response to a question as to whether he felt remorse for using the helicopter, he said he stood by his decision to fly to Hlabisa, but in hindsight should have hired a private helicopter.

A source at the Health Professions Council of South Africa, who would not be named, said their legal team was compiling a case of abandonment against Dhlomo.

“It doesn’t matter that he is the MEC. He is still a medical doctor and he needs to abide by rules that govern the profession. He took an oath to do no harm and because of that we really don’t care about his political status,” he said.

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