In Memoriam: Eddie Mhlanga: a doctor and a friend with the biggest smile and the warmest heart in the world

20/02/2022 Comments Off on In Memoriam: Eddie Mhlanga: a doctor and a friend with the biggest smile and the warmest heart in the world

Published in the ICWRSA Newsletter, 11 February 2022

It is with great sadness that we report that Eddie Mhlanga, professor, policymaker, obstetrician-gynaecologist, abortion provider, passionate advocate for public health and women’s health and rights, and much loved colleague, died on 5 February 2022 after a short illness. He was only age 68.

Here are some excerpts from published articles by and about him, about his professional life and his enormous contributions to women’s health care in South Africa.

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Dr Roland Edgar (Eddie) Mhlanga

Prof Eddie Mhlanga studied and specialised in obstetrics & gynaecology at the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. In the early 1990s, he was the first Specialist: Obstetrics & Gynaecology in the then Gazankulu Homeland, South Africa, looking after Elim, Nkhensani, Letaba, Shiluvana, and Tintswalo hospitals. He occupied many leadership positions in the medical fraternity, including serving in the committee on Maternal, Neonatal & Child Health Initiatives at the World Health Organization (WHO). He re-joined Letaba Hospital in December 2021 as acting Head for Obstetrics and Gynecology, responsible for Mopani district, until he met his death. DeathObits.com, 7 February 2022

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In an interview with Laura López González on International Safe Abortion Day, 2018, Eddie said:

“I had a colleague who went and obtained an illegal abortion. I was the one who admitted her [after the procedure went wrong]. I promised her at 12 midday on a Thursday that I would see her at 2 o’clock in theatre. That was the last time I spoke to her because, at half-past one, she collapsed. She had been bleeding heavily and been in a lot of pain. When they called me to come to the theatre, she was already under anaesthetic. 

“I opened her up and found her womb was rotten from the infection. 

“We took that out and sent her to the intensive care unit [ICU]. Three and a half hours later, her condition had not changed. I took her back to theatre, opened her back up and found out that the infection – the pus – had spread from the pelvis right up to her kidneys. We had to scoop this pus all out.

“For the next 10 days, she was in the ICU. Every evening, I would go to the ICU and sit by her bedside. I’d hold her hand and pray, “Lord, give her another chance. She is no more a sinner than I am.” 

“After 10 days, she died.

“The following week, at the funeral, her mother was sitting there with her daughter’s four-year-old son. I looked at them and said: “No woman deserves to lose a daughter to unsafe abortion, no child deserves to grow up without a mother.”

“That was the moment where everything changed.” 

FROM: Laura López González, Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, 28 September 2018

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The Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Health, Dr Kenneth Jacobs, has learnt with shock of the passing of Prof Eddie Mhlanga, the Chairperson of the National Committee on the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths, South Africa.

Prof Mhlanga was previously Chief Director: Maternal and Women’s Health in the national Department of Health and served on the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics task team set up to prevent unsafe abortions. He was also instrumental in helping to implement the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (1996).

Prof Mhlangu’s death will send shock waves through the medical fraternity, Dr Jacobs said, as he epitomised selflessness and dedication to public service, especially within the field of women’s health. ‘Prof Mhlanga was an advocate for women’s and child healthcare. The country has lost a man with impeccable qualities,’ said Dr Jacobs. The Committee expressed its deepest condolences to Prof Mhlanga’s family during this difficult time.’” Parliament of South Africa, 8 February 2022

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Tributes on the web by more medical colleagues

Director of Maternal, Child and Women’s Health for the Department of Health, Eddie Mhlanga has sadly passed away. Dr Eddie Mhlanga is a member of the South African National Committee on the Confidential Enquiry of Maternal Death. He also serves on the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) Task Team on the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion. As director of Maternal, Child, and Women’s Health for the Department of Health, Dr Mhlanga was instrumental in helping implement South Africa’s Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (1996).

Dr Mhlanga never stopped being an abortion provider. He was [until his death] the Provincial Specialist of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Department of Health for Mpumalanga province, providing clinical care in a low resource setting. He was previously chief director of Maternal, Child, and Women’s Health, in the National Department of Health. He was the past head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology UKZN. As a woman and child health advocate, he was instrumental in the implementation of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act and the Notification of Maternal Deaths. Death-Obituary.com

Bushbuckridge and the country at large lost one of the best obstetricians, rest in peace Prof Eddie Mhlanga. (Bushbuckridge Local Municipality, where he lived, is in the Ehlanzeni District of Mpumalanga in South Africa).

It is with a great sadness that the South Africa Society of Ob-Gyns (SASOG) has learnt of the untimely passing of Prof Eddie Xijekana Mhlanga. Tributes have poured in from within the progressive health community, citing Bra Eddie as a longstanding, ever-committed, health comrade and leader.  He was a gentle soul with strong principles who was not afraid to speak truth to power. Our SASOG colleagues and those who had been mentored by him remember a humble, much-loved colleague and a dedicated obstetrician who leaves a huge vacuum in our discipline…. The greatest tribute to him must be for those left behind to try to match the humility of one of South Africa’s finest professionals. Tribute to Prof Eddie Xijekana Mhlanga, 7 February 2022

Prof Eddie Mhlanga, there are no words, I simply cannot comprehend that you have left this earth. I’m numb. You were an amazing doctor, mentor, and friend. You have meant so much to so many. I cannot believe you are gone. May you rest in peace Xijekana. Society Alert.com, by Peace Udofia, 7 February 2022

It’s hard to choose just one word to sum up Eddie Mhlanga’s work and activism, but “fearless” is a good start. When Thabo Mbeki was president of South Africa in the 1990s and notoriously casting doubt on the link between HIV and AIDS, pressure mounted on the government to take a clear stand on the issue. Mhlanga, then a top official in the national Department of Health, publicly challenged Mbeki and didn’t mince words: “HIV causes AIDS and AIDS kills… People are dying after being infected with HIV and that is what we need to be concentrating on.” Society Alert.com, by Peace Eteng, 9 February 2022

Section27 is deeply saddened by the passing of its board member, Professor Eddie Mhlanga. He was a beloved member of the board and will be remembered for his incredible commitment to health and human rights. Section27, 8 February 2022

What a lovely funny guy with the cheeky grin.

Never afraid to teach or help.

You will be missed by so many.

May God grant your family strength to bear this loss.

– Mona Ponnen, on SA Doctors United Facebook

It will take a while to make sense of this. I spoke with him on 24 Jan … your infectious smile, humanity and big heart inspired me… Rest well, Prof Mhlanga… uyibekile induku ebandla (He has set the bar high in the church – in Zulu.)

– Malindi Mabaso, on SA Doctors United Facebook

[Note: She may be referring to a beautiful poem with this title, written by Spho Da Poet #Getto Conscious, posted 10 August 2018 on nigeriaelitesworld]

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To share the vision and touch the soul

by Linda Kastelman

“Eddie studied for his master’s degree at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Public Health, Chapel Hill, NC, USA. ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ So rose the shout of praise from the audience when Dr Roland Edgar (Eddie) Mhlanga, danced across a stage in spring 1994 to accept his masters of public health diploma at UNC School of Public Health. More than 40 of the joyful commencement guests were congregants at Barbee’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, a community that nurtured – and felt nurtured by – Mhlanga’s indomitable spirit during the time he spent away from his native South Africa. There was much that brought joy that year. Only days before – on April 27, 1994 – South Africa had held its first democratic elections, with people of all races being able to vote for the first time. For Mhlanga, forced out of his local congregation in the South African village of Acornhoek because he opposed segregation, the North Carolina church family was a special gift.

“The obstetrician’s journey to the United States was a blessing as well. His wife Lindiwe (“my better three-quarters,” he claims) had been selected as a WK Kellogg Scholar at UNC, and Mhlanga travelled to Chapel Hill with her. Having been involved himself in the Kellogg International Leadership Program, he believed the masters’ of public health curriculum at UNC offered analytical skills, competencies, and an understanding of community development that would be of great benefit to his and Lindiwe’s work in Acornhoek.

“Now head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa, and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the UNC School of Public Health, Mhlanga is champion of the rural poor and a stalwart advocate for women’s and children’s health.

“He was drawn to the specialty, he says, because of desperate need in South Africa for advanced obstetric, gynecologic and pediatric skills during emergencies. As in the United States, many South African physicians are not willing to serve in poor, rural areas after they finish their long training.

“While serving as the first director of Maternal, Child and Women’s Health and Genetics in the National Department of Health in Pretoria, Mhlanga lobbied for reproductive and sexual health and rights –  work that in 1996 resulted in South Africa’s Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act and later, legislation for the Notification of and Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths.

“In 1999, as chief director of national health programs, he became involved in policymaking and education about nutrition and prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted diseases. Subsequently, Mhlanga’s leadership in women’s and children’s health has been solicited by international agencies such as the World Health Organization and United Nations agencies including the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), among others….

“The leader he admires most, though, is his late mother. “Sennie Mankareng n’waMalapane knew hunger and distress,” Mhlanga recalled, “but made certain her children did not sleep with hunger. [She] taught me that my sibling is the person next to me. [She] taught me diligence and discipline, without which I would not have been where I am today.” All these leaders, Mhlanga says, have been “able to communicate their understanding of the human condition and to transcend human barriers by touching the soul and heart of people. That attribute,” he says, “makes a great leader – to share the vision and touch the soul.” It’s a description that fits him well.”

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In South Africa, we cannot talk about abortion providers without talking about Dr Eddie Mhlanga, a man who has inspired and mentored many of South Africa’s abortion providers…. As a young doctor, Eddie Mhlanga realised that there was a vast need for child health and obstetric services across South Africa and especially its rural areas. He believed that “Every death of a woman is a major event. People need to stop and say, ‘What happened?’” This was reinforced when he treated a nurse, who was a colleague, who died from a septic abortion. This reaffirmed his belief that women don’t have to die due to lack of appropriate services and reproductive choice and this is what has driven his work. (Marie Stopes South Africa, 9 March 2016)

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Implementation of the new South African abortion law: a six-month overview from hospital reports

This journal article opens with a quote from Dr Eddie Mhlanga, then National Director of Maternal, Child and Women’s Health, who contributed support and leadership to the eight hospitals described in the report and the differing extent to which they were each able to provide abortions in the very early days after the national law on abortion was amended:

“Dr Eddie Mhlanga was able to make this assessment: ‘There is increasing acceptance of the procedure and practise of termination of pregnancy. In some provinces access is fairly limited, but I believe that in all provinces there is a concerted effort to deliver the service to women.’”

In: Reproductive Health Matters 1998;6(11):145-48. Excerpted from Barometer 1(2), September 1997, a new publication of the Reproductive Rights Alliance of South Africa, a national alliance of 30 organisations committed to creating and promoting reproductive rights. The newsletter aimed to monitor the implementation of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, passed in 1996.

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For International Safe Abortion Day, 28 September 2021, the Daily Maverick featured a roundtable discussion between Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; Professor Eddie Mhlanga, an obstetrician, gynaecologist and sexual & reproductive health rights activist; and Caroline Mbi-Njifor, the outgoing director of reproductive health services at Ipas. (Daily Maverick, 28 September 2021)

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Some of the many medical, academic and policy positions Eddie Mhlanga held (not in date order):

– Member and later Chairperson, South African National Committee on the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths

– International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Task Team on the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion.

– Director, Maternal, Child and Women’s Health, South African Department of Health, where he was instrumental in helping implement the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (1996).

– Provincial Specialist of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Department of Health, Mpumalanga Province, where he provided clinical care and abortions in a low resource setting.

– Member, South African Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 

– Head and Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

– In the early 90s he was the first Specialist: Obstetrics & Gynaecology in the then Gazankulu Homeland, South Africa looking after Elim, Nkhensani, Letaba, Shiluvana and Tintswalo hospitals.

– Co-Lead Doctor, Global Doctors for Choice.

– Past board member of Ipas.

– Served the WHO (e.g. on the committee on Maternal, Neonatal & Child Health Initiatives), and also UNFPA, UNICEF, FIGO and IPPF in various capacities over the years

– Studied maternal and child health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

– Studied at University of Natal Black Section

– Re-joined Letaba Hospital in December 2021 as acting Head for Obstetrics and Gynecology, responsible for Mopani District, until he met his death following a very short illness.

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“It is with deep sorrow and sadness that as a province we have lost a seasoned medical specialist, clinician and academic with so much passion not just in women’s health but rural women, in particular those with limited access to healthcare. He was our hope towards achieving Zero avoidable maternal death. We send our deepest condolences to the Mhlanga family, friends and colleagues for our loss. May the memories of his contribution to the profession console us as we continue to carry on where he left. May his soul rest in peace,” said MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba, Limpopo Health Department. Sekororo News Facebook, 6 February 2022

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