Pretoria Isabella “Pippie” Kruger’s little heart-shaped face breaks into a surprised smile as her mother playfully dips her feet into the fish pond. The longer they are submerged, the wider the toddler’s delighted grin.
Moments earlier, both mom-and-daughter soared joyfully on the trampoline hidden behind their neat home in Linden, Joburg. More and more now, Pippie is smiling.
“There’s so much of the old Pippie in her now,” beams Anice Kruger, Pippie’s mom. “Her feistiness, her waking up with a smile. This morning she woke up with a giggle. Maybe an angel tickled her.”
Her appetite has returned. In the month since Pippie has been home, she has gained almost 2kg. “She’s 13kg now,” announces Kruger proudly as she feeds her daughter a bowl of macaroni.
The three-year-old underwent groundbreaking surgery using her own cloned skin at Netcare’s Garden City Hospital in June, and was recently discharged from Netcare’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Auckland Park – five months earlier than expected – as an outpatient.
“It’s hard work being all alone because there’s no sisters or doctors to help. There’s no cook that makes food three times a day, so ja,” laughs Kruger.
“I have sore shoulders, but other than that I’m coping really well. It’s nice to bring her out of rehab every day, to know she is coming home with me. That I can sleep silently at night, not worrying about her (in hospital).”
Pippie sustained third-degree burns on most of her body when a gel firelighter exploded in her father’s hands on New Years Eve at their Limpopo farm.
Doctors at Garden City gave her little chance of survival, but she has fought her way through five heart attacks, kidney failure, pneumonia and 45 operations.
Kruger credits her daughter’s transformation to the removal of the brain medication that turned her into a “zombie”. “She can look you in the eye. She is not moaning anymore. She’s trying to speak the whole time. Her legs and arms are straighter. And she sleeps in her own bed at night… There are no tantrums, nothing.
“She doesn’t have to fight. She’s not scared anymore. The list of the medication she was on, it makes you not want to speak; you’re not you. To me, she was a zombie. To force physiotherapy onto her when she was sleepy, it didn’t work, and now that’s she’s off the meds, even the physiotherapy is going better.”
On Tuesday, Pippie visited Dr Wally Nel, a Springs doctor, who prescribes the “Lazarus” pill, Stilnox, which has been shown to restore brain function. The next day, Pippie sat by herself on the couch for the first time.
She takes a quarter of the pill twice a day. “It puts the damaged cells to sleep and wakes up the dormant cells… It’s these teeny tiny things we are seeing. Her cognitive skills have been improving. I’m hoping for it to make her speak again. I’m frustrated for her because I don’t know what she wants or needs… it tires her out.”
On Friday, they visited Garden City, where staff were impressed with how Pippie’s skin is healing. Dr Ridwan Mia, the plastic surgeon who performed the skin surgery, visits Pippie often. “We proved a lot of people wrong. He’s a bit of a show-off with Pippie. She’s at her happiest when Dr Mia walks in. It’s the same with her dad.”
Their Linden home, donated by a benefactor, is temporary. “This is not her home, so she doesn’t know it. I think it’s maybe just another hospital for her… just another place with weird and unfamiliar faces. There’s no dogs barking or ouma and oupa just next door (like on their farm).”
Going back home next year will be hard – Kruger remembers how hospitals in Ellisras [Lephalale] turned her family away on the night of Pippie’s accident.
“I don’t trust Ellisras after what happened. If Pippie bumps her toe, I’ll drive through to Joburg so Pippie can see Dr Mia, or when she just sneezes, I’ll drive through so Dr [Miles] Bartlett [at Garden City] can give her a tissue.
“What if something happens again? Then we’d have to go through all that trauma again. My band aid guys are right here.” - Pretoria News Weekend