Medical Emergencies in Johannesburg

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

At age nine, my daughter has already been to a plastic surgeon three times. And it’s not because she needed a new nose or smaller ears or that she is particularly vain. It’s just that, like most kids, she happens to have a small accident from time to time. And when she does, doctors at the trauma unit of the local private hospital will shake their heads and say: “If she was a boy, I would stitch the wound. But she is a girl and needs a nice scar. Let’s call my colleague the plastic surgeon.” We are fortunate enough to have Life Fourways Hospital within a few kilometres from our home, and as you will see, we make good use of this convenient situation.

The first time I went there was to take my daughter to the trauma unit on a Sunday morning. After just a few hours, including a 45-minute operation by the plastic surgeon, we were on our way home again.

On another occasion I was even happier about the proximity of Life Fourways Hospital, because I had to take my hubby to the trauma section. Suffering from a slipped disc in his back and in terrible pain, he can probably tell you exactly how many pebbles we drove over on that six kilometre drive. But not only was the drive short (at least for me, who was pain free), but also, once he was there, things happened quickly: within less than two hours, he had been thoroughly tested, including an MRI, and the orthopaedic surgeon had been organised. Not too bad, I would say, considering that a friend in Switzerland told me that he had to wait for 2 weeks for an MRI appointment.

Another friend here in South Africa told me about his experience with an emergency at 5am at his house. Because they live in Dainfern, a residential estate, they first alarmed the estate’s security services, who called for an ambulance but also promptly sent a member of staff with a radio to my friend’s house, ready to help with whatever was needed. Security also made sure that the ambulance passed the estate’s entrance without delay and guided it to the proper house. It took them a bit over 20 minutes to arrive there.

Astonishingly, the ambulance service didn’t cost a cent, even though the service was delivered by a private hospital. When it comes to finances, I find the South African emergency units quite uncomplicated. As expats, we are covered by a foreign medical insurance. It works on a pay-and-claim-back-system, so we cannot hand over a medical aid card as a guarantee for payment. But at all the doctors and hospitals we have visited, we have always been admitted and treated, without having to wave our credit card collection at the first person we saw. When my husband found out he’d have to have to be admitted to the hospital for his back op, he called our medical aid, and they faxed a guarantee to the trauma section, which settled it.

But how about the quality of treatment, you might ask?

We’ve found that in terms of quality there is also nothing to complain about. My husband’s back op put an end to 10 years of back pains, for instance. And one of my doctors in Switzerland told me that he’d spent a year in South Africa, training as a surgeon. Apparently, doctors from all over the world are on a long waiting list, patiently awaiting their turn for a coveted internship at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in SOWETO.

As everybody who has ever been in this situation will know, you feel rather vulnerable when you’re lying in a hospital bed. And you are looking for confirmation that you are in good hands. Especially in a foreign country. And one in Africa, of all continents.

My hubby had his moment of doubt when a nurse was filling out the admissions paperwork, asking him questions about his health. At the question “Are you wearing glasses?” he thought that looking at her through his glasses should be enough to answer the question. It wasn’t. But what really got him was the question “What contraception do you take?”

So it may not come as a surprise that it took me a moment to gain confidence in my husband’s surgeon when I first saw him. Because he’s the first and still the only South African man I’ve ever seen wearing tattoos and an earring. And yes, I have to admit, the thought of a surgeon operating while shaking his head wildly to the rhythm of pumping hard rock music came to my mind. But then again, who knows what surgeons DO listen to or talk about while they are busy cutting open and sewing up people?

In any case, doctor hard rocker did a splendid job.

And, like they say in France: all is well that ends well.

Note by editor: I can also attest to the virtues of Life Fourways Hospital, having been there for own share of medical emergencies. Alas, we have a boy, and so the plastic surgeon wasn’t offered when we might have wished for a prettier scar. If you can stomach more stories about cutting open and sewing up people in relation to the South African medical system, the following articles might be of interest:

In the Emergency Room
In the Emergency Room – Again!
Back in the Operating Theatre

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.


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