UFS Medical Students Afraid To Work At Pelonomi Hospital

Final year UFS students protest the poor security at the Pelonomi Tertiary Hospital in Bloemfontein. Picture by Wongalethu Mfana.

University of the Free State (UFS) medical students are concerned about their safety following several incidents of violence at the Pelonomi Tertiary Hospital in Bloemfontein.

Students are obliged to attend after hour calls at the hospital as part of their medical degree. Last week there was attempted rape and an armed hijacking at the hospital, despite assurances of beefed up security.

Attempted rape of medical student sparks protest

On June 4, a discharged patient returned to the hospital and allegedly attempted to rape a female medical intern. The intern defended herself by biting off a part of the attacker’s tongue and stabbing him with a pair of scissors.

This is the second reported incident of rape or attempted rape at the hospital. In 2010, a female doctor was hit over the head with a brick and gangraped.

Citing ongoing safety concerns, hospital staff downed tools on June 5 calling on management to take action. “We are not going to be raped each and every day and keep quiet. It’s not acceptable,” one of the workers told the SABC.

Students protested against the unacceptable working conditions in front of the Pelonomi Hospital on June 6.

Final year UFS medical students stand in front of the Pelonomi Tertiary Hospital in Bloemfontein, protesting poor security. Picture by Anjana Thomas.

The protest dispersed when Dr David Motau, head of the Free State department of health, assured protesters that the department had initiated measures to improve safety, encouraging them to return to work.

Hospital management, with the support of the health department, responded by beefing up security, and increasing equipment for existing security.

Then on June 8, a female doctor was accosted by three armed suspects in the parking lot of the hospital. The attackers robbed her of her personal belongings at gunpoint. Security guards’ attempts to apprehend the suspects were unsuccessful.

Student’s feel unsafe at the Pelonomi Hospital

UFS students gave various accounts of the dangers they faced working at the Pelonomi Hospital.

Fifth year student Amanda Msomi* said a nurse had warned her not to enter a room where a patient was waiting to be treated. The patient had been harassing Msomi, calling her his wife and threatening to beat up people who intervened and tried to prevent the patient from touching her. “If sisters are concerned about a patient then there should be some kind of security ready in case he does get violent,” the student said to The Daily Vox.

Students are calling for the university to install visible security and arrange safe transport for students who are working long shifts. Students also want clear communication about the plans in place.

Medical students work long hours at the hospitals, often finishing shifts at early parts of the morning. Both students who take public and private transport home have been made to feel unsafe.

There are current security measures in place for students to call security to escort them to their transport. But students are complaining that security hardly responds. When security responds, they take 35-40 minutes to arrive which, after a 17-hour shift, students feel is “ridiculous”.

Eyman’s car was broken into at the Pelonomi Hospital earlier this year.

Fifth year medical student Keshia Eyman says her car was broken into while she was on a 12-hour trauma call. “There were seven security guards sitting in the little house by the gate who could see my car from where they were. All the security said is, why didn’t you come out and check on your car throughout the night?’ and ‘Why didn’t you hear your car alarm go off?’” Eyman said.

The current system especially does not protect students without cars.

Fourth year medical student Refiloe Mokoena has been harassed while travelling home with a taxi after working at the hospital. One night, Mokoena and a friend asked a cab driver to drop the two halfway to their destination because they’d have been charged double for two stops. “A guy followed me home offering to give me a lift the rest of the way. He even called me later telling me he will wait for me outside my place on his off days. It’s really unfair we have to go through these things,” Mokoena said.

“I don’t want to go to Pelonomi at all until we have definitive safety and transport measures that we’re happy with. We also need better communication about the plans in place. We can’t hold [the university] accountable unless they set specific deadlines,” a fifth year medical student Katlego Morena* said to The Daily Vox.

“Students are extremely frustrated, we don’t feel safe. It feels like nothing is being done on the faculty’s side and on the department of health’s side to ensure our safety,” Morena added.

Health department is prioritising safety

Free State Health Department’s Spokesperson Mondli Mvambi assured The Daily Vox that the department is satisfied with the security measures put in place. “Everything is normal today. The plans that have been instituted are still in place, they are working. There’s nothing untoward. We are satisfied with what we have put in place,” he said.

Mvambi said there were always security measures instituted, but it’s up to stakeholders to adhere to them.

In the long term, Mvambi says safety has become a major priority for the Free State department of health. “We are not only focusing on Pelonomi, we are focusing on all our hospitals. But these things have got budget implications. We’ve got to juggle around the budget and engage other stakeholders to find more money. As you know, the health sector already faces budget cuts. But safety has become a major priority,” he said.

Satisfied with security measures in place, UFS resumes training at Pelonomi Hospital

After the armed hijacking on June 8, the UFS suspended the training of its medical students at Pelonomi Hospital.

However, on Monday during a press conference, the UFS announced that it had resumed training at the hospital. This came after a discussion with the health department, the hospital management and the police. UFS was satisfied with an extensive security plan that the health department presented which includes installing high-mast lasts, repairing the perimeter fence, security locks and limiting hospital access between 8pm and 6am.

The health department also extended it’s bus service between hospitals in Bloemfontein and the medical school. The university is also looking at further transport arrangements for students.

“The main focus and concern for the executive management of the university is the safety of its students and staff,” UFS vice-chancellor Professor Francis Petersen said.

* Names have been changed.

Featured image by Wongalethu Mfana