“We tried everything. But he just went down, and down.”
Johannesburg – Sister Mavis Mahlakoane on Sunday described the 18-and-a-half hours she spent with Minister Jackson Mthembu at Milpark Hospital, where the minister succumbed to Covid-19-related complications on Thursday.
Mthembu, the Minister in the Presidency, was buried in his hometown of eMalahleni, Mpumalanga, on Sunday, in a state funeral attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who gave the eulogy, Deputy President David Mabuza and other government and ANC heavyweights.
Mahlakoane said Mthembu was admitted to hospital on Tuesday, January 19. The next day, she was assigned to room 3 where Mthembu was being treated. “Most nurses were scared to nurse him, saying there’s a VIP patient.
“On entering his room, I introduced myself. He was very calm as he greeted and welcomed me.”
Mahlakoane said she spent most of Wednesday by his bed side. Despite his status he was not a “do-you-know-who-I-am” kind of a patient. “He was such a kind person; full of ubuntu.”
Mahlakoane said she asked the minister what he’d like for breakfast, lunch and supper, but he politely declined: “My wife will bring me food.”
A portrait of the Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu at his funeral service in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga. Picture: Kopano Tlape/(GCIS)
Indeed, she brought him food, which included fruit salad and cheese.
“We had several conversations with the minister. It was like we had known each other for long; like we were friends.
“He showed me videos on his cellphone of Bheki Cele (police minister) dancing. We laughed. He said when he comes out of hospital he’d show Cele how to dance.”
Later that day, the minister showed his empathic side and asked the nursing sister if she was not tired running up and down. “Tata, that’s how I referred to him after he had politely asked me to stop calling him minister, told me to go have some tea and rest.
“He said the PPE (personal protective equipment) I was wearing must be hot and wearing me down. He also thanked me and all the health workers in general for helping heal the nation.”
Mahlakoane said that at around 5pm the minister asked for his phone, saying “there is only one person who understands me better – Cyril”.“He went on to say ’Cyril will be disappointed’.” Mahlakoane said she did not understand why the minister would say Cyril will be disappointed.
Just before 7pm as she was to end her shift, Mthembu asked that they pray, as they did earlier with his wife. “He then wished me a safe journey home.”
The next morning, Thursday, January 21, Mahlakoane went to see her patient. “When I enquired how he was feeling, he just said ‘kunzima’ (it’s difficult). He said he was feeling cold because of the oxygen machine. I felt his body was cold.”
The minister, she said, also complained of a sore throat. “I asked him if I could make him a warm black rooibos tea, and he thanked me profusely.
“All of a sudden his condition appeared to deteriorate. I immediately asked him to put on his oxygen machine. I called the sister-in-charge and the doctor. They arrived immediately.
“The doctor informed uTata that he was going to put him on NIV (non-invasive ventilator). He made him try it, but the minister politely declined, saying it was uncomfortable. The doctor then suggested the insertion of a pipe through Tata’s throat to assist the lungs with breathing. Tata agreed.
“We immediately assembled a specialist team, including our anaesthetist Dr Rudolph Mononyane. We incubated uTata, and Dr Mononyane had to rush to KwaZulu-Natal where another patient needed attention.”
Sadly that was the last time the hospital would see Dr Mononyane. The Netcare 911 rescue helicopter he was in crashed in the province, killing him and his four colleagues instantly. Meanwhile, in Gauteng, the team battled to save Minister Mthembu’s life as they watched it ebb away. “We tried everything. But he just went down, and down,” Mahlakoane said in a soft, low voice.