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Load shedding turns deadly

Published Aug 5, 2023


Durban - Children and adults in palliative care are struggling to stay alive amid the ongoing load shedding and experts warn that the country’s “diabolical” energy crisis could send more people to an early grave.

For those who need power-driven medical devices, especially oxygen, it’s become a desperate fight for survival and they are fast running out of hope.

Warren Oxford-Huggett, the chief executive officer for Msunduzi Hospice in Pietermaritzburg, said about 80% of their patients did not have access to inverters, batteries and generators, making load shedding an emotional and physical challenge.

“It complicates having a life threatening illness; you’ve got your illness, you’ve got your treatment regimen, there’s all the stresses of being sick and now on top of that you have to somehow manage a lack of electricity and the load shedding challenges that come with it.”

He said it was also incredibly frustrating for the nursing staff who encountered problems even before they could take care of their patients. Oxford-Huggett said when the power went out, their telephones did not work, the computers were offline, when they visited patients their gates could not be opened or the traffic lights were out and they ended up gridlocked in traffic.

He said despite this, hospice and palliative care facilities provided an invaluable service to patients even when faced with these challenges.

“We are really speaking of patients who are at a point in their lives where they are often at home without hope and the care we provide in some small way brings hope to our patients. So even without electricity, we still find ways to do our jobs to come in and walk alongside our patients.”

Hospice doctor Margie Venter said having access to a continuous supply of oxygen was critical for many, who would die without it because they can’t breathe on their own. She said oxygen concentrators must be plugged into a power socket to work and long periods of load shedding or extended outages could have dire consequences.

“It’s a machine that extracts the oxygen from the room air, so when the patient has the mask on, what they’re getting is oxygen, and not just air.”

She said those big machines were generally not battery operated.

“You can have oxygen cylinders that contain concentrated oxygen but it’s an additional cost and they run out quite quickly so it’s not a sustainable solution for someone on long-term oxygen use,” said Venter.

Venter, who is based at the Stellenbosch Hospice, said fortunately they were linked to the Stellenbosch Hospital and had access to a generator, but for home-based patients the situation was dire.

“Even having an inverter does not help because the inverters don’t last for four hours and then people’s oxygen machines can’t work. It’s not a problem for every single patient but those who need a constant supply of oxygen really struggle.”

She said palliative care patients would not necessarily die but would experience a significant amount of discomfort.

“It’s nuanced, it’s very dependent on each case,” said Venter.

It was critical, she said, to ensure that patients who depended on oxygen remained absolutely still when their machines went off.

“For people in palliative care who are short of breath, we give a low dose of morphine which helps relieve that sensation of shortness of breath and it’s often more effective than giving people oxygen. However, there are cases where oxygen is also required and for those people to have long periods of no electricity will make them extremely short of breath, so the suffering is increased and they may even die sooner than expected.”

Apart from morphine, they were also treated with anti-anxiety medication. She said load shedding added another layer of complexity to the job of medical personnel who had to scramble and find a solution to the lack of electricity, never mind oxygen.

Venter said one of the families she dealt with had a neighbour with an inverter who allowed them to tap into the power supply through a long lead that ran from one property to another. However, even that was complicated and led to significant stress, she said.

“In home-based care, families are already under a lot of stress in terms of caring for that person and so with load shedding that frustration is adding insult to injury.”

She said this kind of scenario affected about 10% of the people she saw, but in smaller clinics and for patients in rural areas, the problems would be more severe.

Social worker Tarryn Bell and her husband Dr Christoff Bell witnessed the deadly effects of load shedding first hand last year when a 2-year-old girl at their Butterfly Palliative Home in Ngwavuma, KwaZulu-Natal, died as a result of load shedding.

“In a sense I feel that we failed her even though it was out of our control,” she said.

Bell said at the time they were in the middle of a week-long power outage, Eskom workers were on strike and they had burnt out two generators to keep all their medical machines running.

She said they were repeatedly running between their hospice and the hospital with little Lulu, who was at the end of life stage. Lulu died on the day their new 12-bed hospice opened, making it a bittersweet occasion.

“She was suffering from heart failure so she was going to pass away, but the added stress of not being able to provide the oxygen definitely made the situation worse and caused unnecessary stress. We wanted to keep her in a quiet, peaceful, environment; (but the situation) could definitely have contributed to her early demise.”

Lynette Croote, a paramedic who started the Lambano Sanctuary in Germiston on the East Rand, said two children in their home-based care system died as a direct result of the ongoing power cuts.

“Their machines had gone off, they didn’t have oxygen and they couldn’t get to hospital in time.”

She said the situation was diabolical and there were many stories like this because the communities they assisted were poor and had no access to generators.

“When load shedding comes, who has money for a taxi or to call an ambulance, and when is the ambulance going to come? It’s much bigger than just switching off the electricity, it’s a real crisis.”

She said their area had been without electricity for the last seven days and last weekend they used up eight large gas cylinders, which cost R1 750 each, just to keep the facility running.

Croote said those South Africans who were upset because load shedding interfered with their wi-fi or other privileges should spare a thought for those who were likely to die because of it.

The Independent on Saturday