On Behalf of Others

Surely he took up our pain, and bore our suffering, ....
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53, 4, 6 NIV)

It was my first day as medical officer-in-charge at the Chikankata Hospital, 1 May 1970. A colleague called me to the paediatric ward where a number of children appeared desperately sick. Heel pricks revealed brown, not red blood.  We quickly concluded that it must be poisoning of some kind. It turned out to be methaemoglobinaemia due to sodium nitroprusside in rehydration fluid. We administered methylene blue and most of the children affected recovered dramatically, but not before five had died.

We called the police and the state pathologist. News spread quickly and soon a large crowd gathered. When the police read out the names of the deceased children the crowd erupted, rioting and attempting to attack staff. The face of one of the mothers being restrained by police, preventing her from reaching me, remains in my mind. We were told to hide and not to emerge from our homes till next day.

The night passed without incident and next morning I walked warily but confidently to the hospital chapel. There he was at the door - headman, Charlie Chikankata. 'I've come to apologise on behalf of my people,' he said to me. 'I know it was an accident'. He was 'bearing the sins of others'.

We fully expected the hospital to be empty. It wasn't. None had left.

Forensic investigations continued for six weeks, revealing that the problem was in the pharmacy. No criminal charges were to be laid, but as having overall responsibility I had to accept the blame. I was told by the investigating officer that I needed to reprimand staff and ensure better supervision. Civil proceedings concluded with an out-of-court settlement. The burden of leadership weighed heavily. I also had to 'bear the sins of others'. 

A couple of years later a mother entered the outpatients consulting room, a child on her lap. I looked up at her. I recognised the face immediately. The last time I'd seen her was on that fateful day. It was she who had tried to attack me because of the death of her child. 'However can you come back here?' I asked her.

'Where else could I go?' was her response.

This child recovered.