Hillcrest, Durban – “I would rather be raped 100 times
than for my son to have lived through what he did.”
This was the agonising cry of Vanessa Burn as she
related the events leading to the death of her 13-year-
old son, Tristen, in the arms of his father, Tim Burn, at
RK Khan Hospital.
When Tristen went to St Mary’s Hospital in
Mariannhill, Pinetown, with a foot injury they had no
idea that after a nightmare of failures and
misdiagnoses at the hands of allegedly “apathetic and
callous” staff, he would be dead three days later.
The Hillcrest parents are battling to come to terms
with the tragedy after hospital staff allegedly botched
treatment for a twisted ankle and instead pumped
him with tuberculosis (TB) drugs. According to a
pathologist’s report he died from septic shock and
multiple organ failure from staphylococcal
septicaemia, a treatable condition if managed in time.
The parents, who were advised by lawyers not to speak
to the media until now, yesterday said a police inquest
had been opened and that they were preparing to
lodge a complaint with the Health Professions Council
of SA. They also want to sue the KZN Health
Tristen died on May 24, just days after his injury.
“They took an X-ray and found a hairline crack in one
of his foot bones. He needed plaster of Paris. The
doctor said he would be fine and could go to school in
two days,” Tim Burn said.
After a night at home in excruciating pain, Tristen
went back to St Mary’s the next morning. His foot was
X-rayed but the doctor said there was no problem.
However, upon Vanessa Burn’s insistence that
something was horribly wrong, staff removed the cast.
“When they pulled it off there was a red line where
the cast had cut into his leg, although it was not
bleeding. And that is what he died from,” Tim Burn
Without checking his blood circulation hospital staff
allegedly replaced the cast and sent him home,
Vanessa said. The parents said they later learnt that if
his circulation had been checked, “compartment
syndrome” could have been diagnosed and treated.
But his breathing became shallow and he went back to
St Mary’s the next day where chest and foot X-rays
were taken. He was diagnosed with TB.
“I told them it was impossible for him to have TB
because he was a healthy child,” Vanessa said.
He was admitted to the adult TB ward the next
morning and his condition deteriorated rapidly. By the
afternoon he was feverish, ice cold and gravely gaunt.
His back had turned black.
“He was screaming ‘I’m dying, I’m dying. I don’t want
to die’,” Vanessa sobbed. Tim said he had to “shout
and scream for help” and only then did staff put him
on drips and a heart monitor.
Tristen was transferred to RK Khan Hospital where the
“They didn’t even put on the ambulance sirens because
paramedics said it was not a matter of life and death,”
Burn said he drove to the hospital within about half an
hour but the ambulance took an hour to get there.
When they arrived, Burn said he had to help
paramedics wheel his son and locate a bed after a
nurse said the hospital was full.
“His drips had come out and were dripping all over the
place. There was no drip stand so I hung the drips on to
a window catch.”
The parents were relieved when a doctor diagnosed
Tristen with an acute reaction to the TB medication.
Drugs were administered and his pain was relieved.
Burn said that when he returned to see his son in the
evening: “The drip had come out, his blood sugar was
low and three nurses were standing around him
“He was lying naked and they had the blanket pulled
down. My son was well endowed for a 13-year-old.
They said they were trying to give him sugar water. He
said he wanted to go to the toilet. I lifted him up on to
the bed pan and he was hardly talking to me and just
staring as if he could not see me any more,” Burn said,
“Then he put his head on my shoulder and I thought
he was going to sleep. I didn’t realise he wasn’t
breathing until I saw his chest wasn’t moving. I ran to
get a nurse and I shouted ‘help me, my son is dying’
and she went off in the other direction. I started
giving him mouth to mouth and then staff did CPR.”
A few minutes later a doctor told Burn his son was
Burn said apart from a few staff along the way “the
majority were callous and apathetic”.
“The health system is a farce. If I had money my child
would still be alive. There is a brand new hospital just
2km from my home and I am not far from Crompton
Hospital, but I did not have a R30 000 deposit.”
Independent forensic pathologist Dr Steven Naidoo,
who conducted the autopsy, said Tristen did not have
TB. “I believe the cause of death was a complication of
a too-tight plaster cast placed around the injured limb.
No other medical conditions of note were identified at
Department of Health spokesman Chris Maxon said
the department was investigating the case. “The
department is interrogating this matter through
relevant channels and processes. As soon as the
investigation is completed, it will be communicated
accordingly to relevant parties. We wish to convey our
sincere condolences to the Burn family.”
St Mary’s Hospital CEO Dr Douglas Ross said
management had met the family after the incident
and had investigated the matter. He declined to
comment on the allegations.
“We are well aware the family is upset and empathise
with them. It was a tragic outcome,” Ross said. “We
are a first level district hospital managed by generalist
physicians. We referred him to RK Khan for ICU and