Mourners formed a guard of honour as part of the funeral procession of nursing sister Petronella Benjamin, nee Hoffman, the Western Cape’s first health worker to have succumbed to Covid-19.
Wearing masks, they adhered to strict physical distancing, singing, waving and clapping as the hearse made its way from Kraaifontein mortuary to the cemetery 10 minutes away on Tuesday May 5.
Adhering to strict Covid-19 lockdown regulations only 50 people were allowed to attend the funeral.
The family was not allowed to touch the body or the casket. Ms Benjamin was buried in an airtight and specially sealed casket, which was sanitised every 30-seconds.
A health inspector guided them throughout the process and ensured that all safety measures were adhered to.
The funeral was attended by immediate family, excluding her husband Pastor Edwin Benjamin, who is in the intensive care unit at Kuils River Netcare Hospital, with coronavirus.
Ms Benjamin is survived by her husband, their three sons, daughter, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
He is the only family member who contracted the virus from his wife, who was due to serve her last day as a nurse at the Cape Town Reproductive Clinic in the Golden Acre on Thursday April 30.
“O Mamma professional nurse Petronella Benjamin”, 62, as she was referred to by Health MEC Dr Nomafrench Mbombo in a special tribute video post on Facebook on Workers’ Day Friday May 1, died on Wednesday April 29.
Dr Mbombo dedicated the special tribute to her family and thanked them for her more than 25 years of service as a matron and in a management capacity in the Western Cape Department of Health.
She also thanked all essential services’ workers and especially health care workers – nurses, doctors and emergency medical services (EMS) – for their service during the lockdown.
“As the Western Cape Department, as the MEC for health in the province, as well as my colleagues in the cabinet and for all health workers we are saying thank you. Thank you to the family for borrowing her to us (lending) for all the time.”
Dr Mbombo said Ms Benjamin, who started her professional career at Woodstock community health centre, formerly known as the day hospital, was passionate about nursing.
“For her nursing was a conduit for her to serve her family,” she said.
Those working in Cape Town central business district (CBD) specifically staff from both parliaments, local, provincial and national government departments, who used to be her clients at Long street and Golden Acre station clinics would remember her “passionate caring attitude” – read the Facebook post.
“A spiritual person, a women’s health and reproductive rights patron, who started her nursing career in the then Woodstock hospital, used nursing as conduit to serve the community.”
Ms Benjamin passed her passion for nursing to her daughter Alicia Maart, who is also a state nurse.
“A shero has fallen, our first health worker casualty from the virus, we salute you,” read the post.
Before the lockdown, the department had planned to celebrate the Year of the Nurse, with events including all retired nurses on International Nurses’ Day on May 12.
“What a loss. Condolences to the family, her colleagues and the community she served,” read the post.
With a degree in nursing, achieved after studying various associated disciplines throughout her tenure, Ms Benjamin served as a nurse at various clinics in Cape Town CBD for more than 40 years.
She had a degree in theology, she was an active senior pastor and leader of the Full Gospel church in Macassar.
Her brother-in-law and family spokesman Rudy Cookson said “Nellie was also a professional in these fields.”
He said her working week involved waking up at 3.45am to catch the 5am bus or train to Cape Town, fulfilling her duties (and beyond) for eight-hours and returning home between 6pm and 7pm.
She attended to her family’s needs and spent many nights and weekends counselling people, professing God and managing her congregation, he added.
“Nellie was a fearless ‘Amazon’, warrior and soldier of war against all opposing forces of the teachings of Christ. At the same time, she was saturated with the fruits of humility, forgiveness and benevolence, with the gentle touch of a loving mother, literally and figuratively. What a woman! A mother Theresa of contemporary times,” read Mr Cookson’s tribute.
He said in the past two years the family had asked her to stop working but “Nellie had another family at work – her colleagues who she worked with all her life.
“Her patients, who would travel from all over the Western Cape to see her despite the clinics they had in their areas, some of them being Nellie’s patients since they were school children and now being adults and parents themselves. You see, Nellie did not only give them medical attention and advice, she gave them spiritual nourishment, motherly love, a shoulder to cry on and most of all, her heart of empathy and compassion.”
Mr Cookson said during her lunch and tea breaks Ms Benjamin would give family, friends, colleagues and patients advice and mentorship.
The family was elated earlier this year, when she announced her retirement but at the end of March, a few days into lockdown, she fell ill.
She had told her sons Marvin and O’Neal: “There are people who rely heavily on me at work. I am not a manager to them. I lead them by example. I don’t say, go, I’m coming. I say, come, I’m going.’ That is how I am known. I must go back to work to officially close this chapter of my life. It is incumbent on me.”
Ms Benjamin returned to work after the Easter weekend and contracted Covid-19 while on the frontline, fighting in the battle against the pandemic.
She was sick for less than two weeks and died Wednesday April 29.
Mr Cookson said Ms Benjamin was born with a purpose, which she fulfilled with exemplary dedication and commitment.
“She left this earth with a legacy of impacting thousands of people positively throughout her life. There was never and will never be another Nellie (Hoffmann) Benjamin. Before she died, she sent a cellphone voice message to loved ones and friends of which the essence is the following: Remain in the Joy of God. Remain in the peace of Jesus despite trials and tribulation. Hold on to that which is of utmost importance, your family.”
Mr Cookson said the family had been further perturbed by a health official stating that Ms Benjamin had contracted the virus in the community.
“We want to emphatically say this is incorrect. First we want this statement to be retracted and then a formal apology to pronounced.”
He said Ms Benjamin and her daughter Ms Maart had found it strange they both work for state institutions in the department of health but had spoken about central Cape Town staff not having enough PPE during the first week of the lockdown, which started on Friday March 27.
Mr Cookson said after the funeral they would be consulting a lawyer.
The department said they were aware of the reported death and have shared their sincere condolences with the family.
“We, however, do not provide information on individual cases and also respect the family’s privacy. As such we will not be providing other information,” said department of health spokesperson, Mark van der Heever.
He also said that PPE and the necessary training on proper usage was issued to staff based on the risk environment they worked in.
Detailed questions about PPE and how Ms Benjamin contracted Covid-19 went unanswered.
– Additional reporting by Tamlynne Thompson