Strike leaves cancer patients in tight spot

Some of the patients stranded outside the cancer ward as they wait for medical attention at Mulago Hospital in Kampala yesterday. PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI 

What you need to know:

The permanent staff, who were not paid in December, say they cannot afford transport fares to the hospital

Hundreds of cancer patients yesterday struggled to access lifesaving services at the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) after most of the staff there commenced a sit-down strike over delayed salaries.  

This newspaper understands that the workers that downed their tools are yet to receive a December salary.

Patients at the institute had to endure a host of challenges ranging from long queues to long waiting hours as the few health workers that reported for duty found themselves overwhelmed.

Ms Jovia Nabuleje, UCI’s in-charge of the Emergency Unit (EU), told us she was “the only one on duty” yesterday.

“As you can see, patients are all over.  I am doing everything alone. I am receiving patients, I am working on triage, I am doing administration work, and I am supposed to give treatment to inpatients and work as a pharmacist,” she said adding that permanent staff who were not paid in December “are telling me that they are not able to come because they have no transport.”

Three other colleagues Ms Nabuleje was supposed to work with were a no-show. This left her with her hands full as she toiled to deal with close to 20 patients in the EU.

“There is a delay in care, especially on the nursing side. I can receive like three patients in critical condition at the same time when they all need to be put on oxygen,” she revealed, adding, “If they don’t get the needed services in time, they may end up dying prematurely.”

Ms Nabuleje—her fatigue notwithstanding—had not lost any patients by the time we talked to her. But this was as far as the good news went.

Mr Joachim Ngoolobe, who had taken his ailing father—Mr Godfrey Wandera—to the institute for cancer screening, was told to endure a two-day wait.

“My father has been bedridden for a while. Doctors in Busia tried to attend to him, but they could not establish the cause of his ill health. They referred us to the cancer institute. I brought him here today for screening,” Mr Ngoolobe told Daily Monitor.

At the Outpatient Unit, the few health workers available struggled to deal with patients—some of whom were evidently in bad shape. A 17-year-old girl from Entebbe for instance kept chasing away flies that circled a huge cancerous wound on the back of her ailing 50-year-old mother.

“The doctors are caring but the challenge today is that there are so few yet there are so many patients. They have told us to be patient,” the girl, who arrived at the hospital at 9am, but was yet to be attended by 1pm, told Daily Monitor.

In the paediatric ward, Ms Susan Nabakooza—the in-charge—often found herself conflicted as to whom to attend to. While she was attending to one of the patients in the ward, a mother whose teenage daughter had been put on oxygen in the same ward frantically sought her help.

By press time, there were 36 admissions in the paediatric ward.

Ms Nabakooza admitted that the strike had compromised the quality of care.

“This is a unit that requires a lot of services. We handle a patient as an individual. Being one nurse, I cannot do everything a patient requires. I cannot do 100 percent of everything alone,” she said, adding, “We don’t work alone. We work with a team of doctors, nurses and other specialists. The other team members are around. It is the nurses and laboratory people who are not around. Some of them called me on Saturday and Sunday to inform me that they would not be able to come today due to lack of transport.”

She noted that they have two groups of health workers and that the majority of those who turned up yesterday were from the contracting arm.

Ms Nabakooza, however, said that management recently informed her that the salaries would be paid before the end of this week. Other workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told this newspaper that no official communication to that effect had been made.

Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Health, yesterday told this newspaper that “the Institute is an autonomous entity that should be in position to answer its questions.”

Dr Jackson Orem, the executive director of the Uganda Cancer Institute, said the strike was uncalled.

“Our staff are not the only government workers who have not been paid,” Dr Orem said tersely.