A gynecologist has made history – for the wrong reasons. Dr Danie van der Walt’s bid to stay out prison and not to serve his five-year sentence for culpable homicide, relating to the the death of a mother during labour , failed recently in the Pretoria High Court.

It is the first time that a doctor in South Africa has been jailed for the ‘gross negligence’ of a patient. The judges confirmed the conviction and sentence against Van der Walt, which was handed down by the Witbank Magistrate’s Court by magistrate Merlene Greyvenstein.

In a David and Goliath case, Buyi Daweti, whose daughter Pamela Daweti, died in the theatre at Life Cosmos Hospital, after giving birth to a girl (now aged 12), said she was pushed from pillar to post by the state, police officers and others for over a decade, before she obtained justice. On the other hand, the Health Professions Council of SA had ordered Van der Walt to pay a R10 000 admission of guilt fine an outraged Daweti, a pastor and author, who described the fine as a joke. Her novel entitled Victory At Last, encapsulates the lows and highs Daweti experienced in her quest for justice.

She did not mince her words about the tragedy and the role of the Health Professions Council of SA. “After Pamela died, I vowed that I will fight for justice, irrespective of the time frame. I was pushed from pillar to post by the state, police and others but never gave up. I took on Van der Walt not only to get closure for me and my family but also for other women in general. The Health Professionals Council of SA never called me to testify. It is supposed to be a watchdog for patients. The R10 000 admission of guilt fine which it ordered Van der Walt to pay was a drop in the ocean. In my view, Van der Walt ought to have been struck off the roll,” said Daweti.

The court heard that Van der Walt, went to the hospital to assist Daweti between 1.30am and 2am on 11 August, 2005 despite being informed about the emergency around midnight. The court heard that Daweti had suffered complications during labour the previous evening.

According to the judgment, after inserting stitches for a massive tear, Van der Walt went home. Hospital personnel called him later to say she was still bleeding, but the doctor gave telephonic instructions to staff instead of returning to the hospital. The role which Van der Walt played in Daweti’s death was detailed in a report by the chief gynaecologist, Dr Mokete Titus. The report found that Van der Walt had left Daweti bleeding after delivering the baby and did not investigate what caused the bleeding. He also did not attend to her properly after she delivered the child.

“He failed to examine the patient and plan management accordingly. The patient was in labour for nearly 14 hours, and prolonged labour creates a high risk for postpartum haemorrhage [bleeding after giving birth], which he should have anticipated,” said Titus.
The magistrate said in sentencing that the accused, failed to do everything a specialist of his calibre should have done to save the life of Daweti.

“You are of mature age and a valid member of the community, where you provide a much-needed service. But I hold a view that a community-based sentence will not be correct. I’m of the view that the most balanced sentence is a jail term,” said the magistrate. Another aspect which resulted in Van der Walt’s fall from grace was his lack of remorse and his bid to pay R750 000 compensation, which Daweti had rejected . Professor Leon Snyman of the SA Association for Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says the verdict sent a chilling message to doctors attending to labour cases. He said the insurance premium for obstetricians is R1m a year and doctors must deliver 24 babies per month just to cover their insurance fees. “Now one of our members gets sent to prison for a basic human error,” said Snyman.

In the light of this historical judgment, the Health Professionals Council of SA intends amending its rules concerning doctors convicted and jailed by our courts because as things stand, Van der Walt can still practice after he is released.