In May and July this year alone, government has paid out K305 million as damages to two women who had foreign objects left in their bodies during surgical procedures.
But assistant registrar for the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal Wyson Chamdimba Nkhata, who awarded the damages, has observed that while reported incidents of foreign objects left in bodies during surgical procedures were quite high ‘the actual numbers may be even greater’.
On May 18 2021, the High Court in Blantyre awarded K154.02 million to Lazaro Zinaukaona who sued government on behalf of the late Elizabeth Zinaukaona’s dependents for pain and suffering and loss of amenities of life, loss of expectation of life and loss of dependency.
Similarly, on July 26 2021, the court after assessing the damages also awarded Doreen Chatha K151.5 million for pain and suffering, loss of amenities of life and medical costs.
Nkhata said: “Undergoing a surgical procedure can be nerve-racking, even under the best conditions. This court takes note that leaving a foreign object in a patient’s body during surgery is considered a ‘never event’ which refers to egregious errors that can never be justified in a medical environment.”
After giving birth to her eighth child in 1985, Zinaukaona decided to undergo a surgery at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) in Lilongwe to stop conceiving.
After the operation and through the years, Zinaukaona complained of excruciating pain in her stomach and every time she visited KCH she was given painkillers. At some point she was given liquid paraffin but this did not help, according to Nkhata’s order.
Her situation worsened until December 2013 when the family decided to take her to a private hospital where another surgery unearthed a metal object (forceps) and gauze in her stomach. The objects were forgotten during her operation at KCH.
Zinaukaona passed on two days after discovery of her problem after enduring 28 years of pain and suffering not knowing she had all along been carrying foreign objects in her stomach, reads part of the order.
Fast forward to May 2018. Chatha underwent Caesarian section at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre. Upon her discharge from the hospital, she was given painkillers to reduce the pain the surgical process. She finished the dosage but the pain never subsided. She was admitted again to QECH for further diagnosis and medication but the pain worsened. She then went to a private hospital where another operation was conducted.
This operation revealed that during her first surgery at QECH, a foreign body which was left in her womb had decomposed, causing damage to her reproductive organs.
A study by the Ombudsman dated August 2019 and titled ‘Woes of the womb’, suggests there are multiple cases of negligence in public hospitals where pregnant women lose their uteruses due to pure medical negligence.
The Ombudsman also recommended, as a short-term intervention, to the Ministry of Health and regulatory bodies to vigilantly and impartially discipline all medical personnel found guilty of acts of misconduct to deter others from negligently conducting their duties.
“Sadly, this discovery was too late for treatment for the claimant and the end result is that she had her uterus and ovaries taken out.”
According to doctors’ advice, 25-year-old Chatha’s pain is ceaseless and will be with her for the rest of her life. “She is considerably young and is to live with the handicap for the larger part of her life.
Lawyer Burton Mhango who represented Chatha said in an interview, he welcomed the order, but “sadly we do not think any amount of money can sufficiently compensate for the loss she suffered due to the medical negligence.”
Said Mhango: “Our client is to live with the irreversible traumatic conditions she has been put in for the rest of her life… We are very much worried that these incidents keep occurring in our hospitals and innocent women end up victims of things that can be avoided.”
On his part, health rights activists and executive director of Health and Rights Education Programme Maziko Matemba said it was important for medical practitioners to treat patients with care to avoid unnecessary costs like the K305 million, government is made to pay out.
“K305 million can do a lot to support healthcare delivery service. This is a wake-up call for Medical Council of Malawi to constantly supervise health workers and health facilities also need to do more,” he said.
Society of Medical Doctors in Malawi president Victor Mithi said it was regrettable such things continue happening when the society is charged with the mandate to improve quality and safeguarded professionalism among the practitioners.
“But whenever we have such a case, we take due diligence and listen to both sides then take in some strict measures through the Medical Council of Malawi,” he said.
When asked for their comment on Wednesday, Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe asked for time to consult but did not revert to us as we went to press.