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LAGOS, NIGERIA.     Friday, March 14 2003






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Doctors behaving badly
By Rotimi Oyekanmi

MY colleague, Austin Edemodu, a gentle, amiable guy who reports on Business for The Guardian on Sunday is dead. He died in the early hours of Monday March 3. But I was not surprised, which is why I must alert Nigerians about what is going on in our public hospitals. This will hardly be news for those who have had to visit the so called government hospitals, but we must now take action before premature death sneaks in on us.

Austin, from the account I got from his wife, had been ill for sometime. But the thing got worse, and he had to be taken to a private hospital. But that hospital could not handle his case, and he was immediately referred to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). A surgery had to be carried out, which was done, I think, on Saturday March 1. The next day, the Editor of The Guardian, Mr Debo Adesina, called Austin's wife from the newsroom to ascertain her husband's condition, but the wife broke into tears midway into their conversation. The Editor then decided to go to LUTH immediately, to see things for himself. I went with him.

They call the place Ward B3, for men. When we entered, it was a bit crowded, since it was visiting period, but the ward was dirty. Some of the beds didn't have sheets, and some of those that had were of different colours, an indication that the patients occupying them must have brought the sheets. At that big ward, there was only one nurse, and a few attendants, to look after about 30 or so patients, half of who were in some form of pain. When Mr Adesina asked for Austin from the nurse, he pointed to a bed some metres away, and when we got there, the sight was very, very appalling.

Austin was in a coma. He was not wearing any dress, except for a sheet that covered his waist. He was, at that time, breathing with the aid of a life support device, which was improperly placed. What whoever planted the device on him simply did, was to pass a tiny rubber which was attached to a dirty cylinder into one of his nostrils. We saw his wife, who looked very confused with a few relatives. For some minutes, my editor and I watched Austin as he struggled to remain alive. His eyes had rolled over, and he was totally unaware of our presence. When we asked his wife what had happened, she said Austin had been operated upon, and that he was alright the whole of Saturday March 1. But between that night and Sunday morning, he slipped into a coma. The most disgusting thing was that, when she asked the nurses why her husband's condition had suddenly deteriorated, she was given a very vague explanation.

When she expressed apprehension, the nurses asked whether she was a doctor, who would take care of her husband. Can you believe that? Another shocker: We asked the only nurse on duty if we could meet with a doctor on duty to really ascertain why Austin was left in that state. Although the nurse was polite, she told us that there was no doctor around! I am sure if she knew that it was the Editor of The Guardian that asked the question, she would have lied. I returned to Austin's bedside, and concluded within me, that there was no way he could survive. My editor agreed with my reasoning, and we went back to the office, exchanging very few words. By the next day when I got to the office and was told that Austin had died, I was not surprised.

But I was angry about one thing: Why would the doctors wheel a patient that had just been operated upon to a ward with no intensive care? And why would a doctor not be on duty at any time at a federal hospital? Even if the government is not funding the hospital the way it should be, is that enough reason for them to abandon their duty posts? And who knows whether poor Austin died from the complications arising from the major surgery that was performed on him. A patient was operated on, wheeled into a ward and abandoned on a life support system and simply left to die. What manner of doctors are we producing in this country these days? Where are the norms of medical practice? How far has the Medical and Dental Council been monitoring the behaviour of doctors in both public and private hospitals? Even the nurses too are not left out. Some of them no longer offer soothing words to dying patients, except harsh ones.

As I looked at Austin, I wondered what the Minister of Health was doing. I wondered if he had visited LUTH in the last one year, to see the level of decay. More importantly, it dawned on me that if I had been in Austin's shoes, I would have received the same treatment. I felt very sad and ashamed of the system.

However, I feel journalists across the country should henceforth be challenged to expose these inadequacies in our country. The Nigeria Union of Journalists should lead in this regard, rather than embark on fruitless media tours of the states, which it did with Professor Jerry Gana recently. The various NGOs must also do more to expose these problems, and demand for sanctions to be applied when the norms of medical practice are flagrantly violated. The government must be told that problems exist, and there must be a strong demand, backed by appropriate civil action if the need arises, that the necessary facilities be provided. It is sad that we hear so much about corruption taking place in high places, when ordinary citizens die like chickens in public hospitals. For Austin Edemodu, there is nothing to worry about now.

 Oyekanmi is on the staff of The Guardian


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