A history of failing health

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By Sola Ogundipe
In January 2013, when Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Surgeon General Vejaynand Ramlakan addressed a media briefing on the state of health of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South African President, Nelson Mandela, the entire world held its breath – and for good reason.

For the third time in four months, the nonagenarian had been admitted to hospital to receive treatment for a recurrent lung infection.

However, the South African presidency revealed that the former president had made full recovery from the surgery and continued to improve. There was a sigh of relief all over. Madiba, as Mandela was affectionately known in South Africa, was in “good shape”. But a worried South African nation kept praying for his full recovery. And this was the situation through the months up till his demise on December 5, 2013.

Mandela’s health had caused anxiety on several occasions. In January 2011, a virtual void of information marked his admission to Johannesburg Specialist Care Milpark Hospital. With very little information to go on at that time, speculation was rife and reports of his death went viral on social networks. But Madiba bounced back, still very much alive.

Yet this did little to change the fact that in the last few years of the freedom fighter’s long and illustrious life, he was in and out of hospital almost too many times to count. Indeed a long history of ill health trailed the late elder statesman like a shadow. A spry boxer in his younger days, Mandela stayed fit during his 27 years in prison by doing callisthenics in his cell, but grew increasingly frail as a nonagenarian.

Chronic ailments
Over the years and indeed throughout his illustrious political career, Mandela was plagued by persistent respiratory problems. Previously in December 2012, he had undergone an operation to remove gallstones and treat the recurring lung infection. He was discharged after an 18-day stay and placed under home- based high-care at his Houghton home.

In 1988 while serving his prison term in Robben Island, he was admitted to hospital in Stellenbosch with a bad cough and weakness and having complained of dampness in his cell. He was later diagnosed with early stage tuberculosis, a disease which killed his father.

Two litres of fluid were drained from his chest and he spent six weeks recuperating in the hospital before being transferred to a private clinic near his mainland Cape Town prison where he was the facility’s first black patient.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Eyesight problems
But lung ailments were not the only problem to beset the famed Nobel Peace Prize winner. In fact, he suffered a medley of chronic ailments ranging from memory lapses, enlarged prostate gland and suspected prostate cancer, to tuberculosis, gallstones, abdominal disorders and eyesight problems.

He had obvious eyesight problems. His eyes were sensitive to strong light. In 1994, he had cataract surgery few months after being sworn into office as president at the age of 75. In order to avoid blinding him, press photographers were always instructed not to use camera flash when taking pictures of the departed elder statesman.

But there were more eye problems. Following several years of smashing limestone rocks in the quarry on Robben Island, the tear glands of his eyes were permanently damaged. The alkalinity of the stone left the glands dry and prone to irritation.

In 1985, Mandela had surgery for an enlarged prostate gland that had caused a urinary blockage. This lingered till 2001, when he received radiotherapy for prostate cancer. The following year he declared he had been given a clean bill of health against the disease. Hospital records showed that in 2004, the late peace icon underwent treatment and was completely cured after four months.

Abdominal pain
In February 2012, he was back in hospital to spend the night following a minor exploratory procedure to investigate an undisclosed but nagging stomach pain. Essentially Madiba was known to have suffered bouts of persistent abdominal pain. On this particular occasion, he underwent a diagnostic laparoscopy, or keyhole surgery. He recovered fully and was discharged the following day.

Then in March of the same year, he was admitted to a Pretoria hospital for a scheduled check-up and was discharged the following day. But at the end of that month he was back in hospital yet again – this time for nine days – receiving treatment yet again for recurring lung problems. Doctors drained fluid from his lungs after diagnosing him with pneumonia.

Weeks after he was discharged from a hospital in Pretoria after a “scheduled medical check-up,” growing fears about his health persisted. These fears lingered till he quietly passed away in his home in Johannesburg.

Final moments
In his final hours, Mandela wasn’t on any form of life support. Reports had it that as the end approached, he appeared to be sleeping calmly. At the end, he slipped away. Quietly.

Even at the ripe age of 95, Mandela’s death is still a shock to a world long accustomed to the enduring presence of the monumental peace fighter, who retired from public life many years ago as he became increasingly frail.










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