Jumping to conclusions

Once again, the sensationalist media is to blame for the wholly uncalled-for outcry over the tragic story of Thembisa Nikelo whose feet were amputated at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital after they became infected when she was brought into hospital with burns on her hands.

As a healthcare professional, I recognise that these sort of tragic events can occur. Bacteria don’t care who they infect or the results of those infections. This sort of thing happens more often than we ever hear about – be it in SA or the UK, where I worked as a microbiologist for 9 years – every case is different, but sometimes these events are unavoidable.

But the papers and the radio were quick to jump in with allegations of bad treatment and poor patient management:

Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu… vowed to get to the bottom of the tragedy that crippled little Thembisa Nikelo for life after poor treatment at Far East Rand Hospital in Springs and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.

And John Robbie on Talk702 displayed a shocking lack of knowledge and research when he stated that doctors “should at least look before they operate”.

Fortunately now a voice of reason has come forward and made itself heard, explaining the situation:

The misrepresentation has been given that amputations were carried out on normal legs of a child who had burnt hands as a callous act of negligence. Individuals have shouted their loud mouths off who themselves have never taken responsibility for doing an invasive procedure on a child, spent early morning hours resuscitating an injured or dying child, or gone through the rigours required to train and qualify to make these decisions and take these responsibilities.

To have to perform a destructive procedure such as a limb amputation on a small child is, believe me, a devastating and emotionally highly distressing experience for a dedicated children’s doctor. Media reports failed to point out that the amputations were essential, unavoidable and life-saving for little Thembisa.

These are the words of Professor Peter Beale, Head of the Division of Paediatric Surgery at Wits University who has taken the step of making a statement on the incidents which led up to the surgery on Thembisa Nikelo, the reasons behind the difficult decision to amputate and also condemning those who – with few facts or knowledge of the case – have jumped to conclusions.

The media have indulged in a frenzy of misrepresentation of this case, and individuals from the lay public have written in, condemning the surgeons responsible for the amputations and maligning the medical profession.
“The doctor who performed the amputation should be immediately and permanently struck from the roll,” according to one “gentleman”. A talkshow host suggested that doctors should at least look before they operate – which is highly presumptuous. John Robbie, I suggest you confine your comments to rugby, which you at least know something about.

I applaud Professor Beale for making this statement, but it saddens me that he had to do this. What state is South Africa’s media in that they chase readers with incorrect and inflammatory rubbish rather than taking the time to investigate the story thoroughly and printing something accurate?
That the “respected” John Robbie has also fallen to this level is disappointing. His opinions are welcome when they are backed by fact, but he completely missed the mark on this one and should acknowledge this fact and apologise. I look forward to him being big enough to do that.

This is a story in which I have some professional interest and it was plainly obvious to me as to what had occurred – as I said, I have (sadly) seen this many times in both the UK and SA. However, there are a huge number of stories in the papers that I have no “insider” knowledge of. Are they all as inaccurate as this one?
Without those in the know being forced to spend their valuable time setting the record straight – and getting their voices heard – we may never know.

Professor Beale’s full statement is well worth a read.

14 thoughts on “Jumping to conclusions

  1. Great post. I have actually stopped listening to 702 in the mornings. I like John Robbie but have become a bit bored with his opinions. Sometimes I think it`s a case of being different for the sake of it.
    .-= RunningGolfer´s last blog ..I won! (Part deux) =-.

  2. Sipho > Thanks. And that’s the problem. Getting a voice heard is hugely difficult.

    RG > Thank you. And I agree – Robbie is good because he is not afraid to speak his mind, but he needs to maybe think a little more – or at least get informed – before he opens his mouth.

  3. Glad you’re spreading the word on this one! The sensationalist approach of newspapers these days makes me want to avoid ever reading them again – the number of inaccuracies and contradictions in this morning’s Cape Times around the Airlink incident in George being a case in point.

    Thumbs up to Prof Beale for his measured approach when it’s pretty clear he’s pissed off.

  4. The Mirror headline for the story is “Doctors cut 2-year-old girl’s legs off after ‘mistake’ “, no mention of gangrene. Some other sites talk about unnecessary surgery, totally misleading. Totally irresponsible reporting, maybe the reporters should face an inquiry.

  5. Glad you cleared this up. The “reports” I read also said they amputated them off by mistake! No mention of infection or problems. It was basically said that she went in with a problem with her hands and came out without feet.

    But then, why am I not surprised with all the other “factual” stories that have been printed lately.
    .-= Pamela´s last blog ..Grounded! =-.

  6. All i want to know is, why did the amputation take place? How did her legs get infected? As another 702 co-host usually says, you have got to look at the cause. Was it due to negligence of the hospital that the infection occurred or did she arrive with with infection in her legs and burnt hands?

  7. RichSch > It’s like swimming against the tide, but at least I’m still kicking.

    AdWiz > Ouch.

    Stan > That’s horrendous. But there’ll be no inquiry. Nice to dream though, isn’t it?

    Pamela > There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

    Don > According to the Professor (and I really have no reason to doubt him, because I’ve seen it in 100’s of patients before), Thembisa was admitted with extensive burns to her hands and additionally, a diarrhoeal illness. Bacteria, likely from one of these two routes, entered her bloodstream. This is a serious – life-threatening – condition: septicaemia.
    Thembisa went into septic shock. This is the body’s reaction to septicaemia. One of the symptoms of this is the lack of blood flow to the extremities – the body prioritises blood supply to the vital organs. As a result of this, however, the oxygen supply (via the blood) to her feet was hugely reduced. This is where gangrene set in and this in itself would have spread and been fatal if drastic action hadn’t been taken.

    Media reports failed to point out that the amputations were essential, unavoidable and life-saving for little Thembisa.
    As doctors we can resuscitate but not resurrect, including the dead tissue of gangrenous, dead distal extremities.

    All of this is explained in Professor Beale’s statement – admittedly, a lot of it in “doctor-speak” – but if 702 can’t get someone on who can translate it for the “man on the street”, then all they need to do is call me.

  8. I think Don even makes a good point in… the public actually would prefer just to know the facts. We can jump to our own conclusions from there. But these days so many journos want to be jumping to conclusions for us, to be the “intellectual” and not the “reporter”. I got so irritated with the bad reporting in SA that I was reading less & less, because of information gaps & sensational assumptions in reports. Here in Oz, the media I have come across is so much worse that it is actually laughable, and I heard the same about the UK. Reporters always blame the editors, but I am getting tired of that excuse. And enough with this excuse of “we have to SELL newspapers”. Uhhh… I have kinda run out of steam without some decent wrap up. But thank you to you for shedding light on this. AND yup, think how much unresearched incorrect info you read in newspapers because you aren’t an expert on that topic! Worrying!
    .-= Champagne Heathen´s last blog ..Congress of The Unemployed =-.

  9. Asking > I don’t know – simply because it doesn’t say.
    If you are suggesting that the infection may have resulted from the insertion of lines (drips), then yes, this is always a possibility.
    Prof Beale describes the situation as follows:

    She rapidly became severely ill with a septicaemia. An organism had entered and spread in the blood, either from an invasive burn infection or gut related to her enteritis.

    While it is perfectly possible for a line infection to cause septicaemia, it seems far more likely that it would come from her burns or her gut infection. Those (especially the former) are notoriously difficult to prevent infection in – remembering that the skin is the body’s major defence against infection and she would have had no skin on her hands/forearms.

    As the complications set in as a result of septicaemia, it makes no difference where the lines were inserted – this would have had no bearing on which part of her body was affected as the infection was systemic and not localised.

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