Doctors stay put under fire at Hillbrow Clinic
As violence erupted, a Jewish doctor and his colleagues defied calls to leave their posts at the Hillbrow Clinic, choosing instead to serve the dozens seeking emergency care, and eventually ensuring that they were evacuated via armoured ambulance.
“We were obviously concerned that the violence taking place on the streets of Hillbrow would spill over into the clinic. At the same time, there was no chance we could keep up with the patients. Tension inside the clinic began to rise as it became increasingly difficult to deal with the volume of patients with severe injuries,” said the doctor, who has asked to remain anonymous. He was one of only two doctors, alongside three nurses, attending to casualty at the clinic from Sunday night into the early hours of Monday.
“We received a number of warnings from various sources to get out of Hillbrow, but with the volume and severity of the patients we had to deal with, this simply wasn’t possible,” he said.
Even before he arrived for his shift that day, a colleague working in the afternoon had called him, with a police officer at the clinic, to give directions about the safest route to reach the clinic.
When he arrived, staff numbers were already curtailed by the fact that some medical workers had been unable to get to work owing to the security situation in the area.
As night fell, they could hear the noise of the crowd and sporadic gun fire outside the clinic. “Being a clinic, we don’t have the facilities to treat P1 [priority 1] patients. Our job is to stabilise the patient and transfer them to a higher-level centre. Unfortunately, by 20:00, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) called us to say that it wouldn’t be transporting any of our patients as the roads weren’t safe.”
Patient numbers then began rapidly increasing, with people seeking help for traumatic injuries, mainly from gunshot wounds and rubber bullets.
“I never realised how vicious rubber bullets are until I saw the effects – we had a patient with a rubber bullet to the eye, a young man with a rubber bullet lodged in his cheek, and a one-year-old baby girl hit by a rubber bullet in the head.”
The clinic staff contacted the police to assist with crowd control and ensure the clinic wouldn’t be stormed. When the officials finally arrived, they attempted to disperse the crowd outside.
“By 21:00, we had received news that the armoured ambulance [Mfezi], which has capacity for about 20 patients at a time, was on its way to help evacuate patients from the clinic.”
The EMS, with the Mfezi, was then able to assist in evacuating patients in the direst condition first. They also sent home those not needing urgent care.
“Each time we thought we were finished with the evacuation, another patient would arrive with either a gunshot wound or stabbing. It felt like the pressure was never going to end. The last patient was evacuated only at about 03:30.”
For the medical fraternity, it has been a “nightmare dealing with the dual crisis plaguing the province of COVID-19 and now riots”, said the doctor.
However, he paid tribute to those supporting the sector’s efforts to keep offering care to those who need it most. For example, during his shift that night, after his family had contacted the Community Security Organisation (CSO), “they remained in constant contact with me, providing me with updates about the situation and ensuring that I wasn’t in any immediate danger. When we told them that we couldn’t leave the clinic, they gave us practical advice about what we should do in the event of escalation in the clinic.”
The doctor said the support he was given by CSO made him feel privileged to be a part of the community.