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Cape Town - Nearly 10 years ago, Paul Nieuwenhuis and his daughter, Aniek, were given a 50-50 chance of survival after receiving terrible burns.
The Cape Argus reported on the tragedy, which unfolded along the Palmiet River near Kleinmond.
The Nieuwenhuis family - Paul, Erica and their three children - were staying in a two-roomed cabin in the mountains in March 2004 when a faulty coupling on the gas cylinder caused a fire.
The couple were caught in one room and their three children - Roald, 11, Aniek, eight, and infant Mila - in the other. Paul kicked a window out, allowing Roald to help his baby sister escape. He went back in to find Aniek and got her out moments before the blazing roof collapsed.
Their car keys and cellphones were lost in the blaze, so they had to walk from the cabin, in an isolated area.
Paul soon faltered due to his injuries and his wife struggled on in the dark, carrying Aniek. She eventually reached the main road between Kleinmond and Betty’s Bay where a police car happened to pass. Finally, an ambulance was sent to take the injured Aniek and Paul to hospital.
Paul was taken to Tygerberg Hospital and Aniek to Red Cross Children’s Hospital.
The doctors on duty gave them a slim chance of survival. Aniek had 95 percent (partial and full thickness) burns, and Paul about 40 percent. They required extensive treatment, including numerous skin transplants, and two months in ICU, followed by several months of treatment. Paul also needed lung operations.
At the time, Professor Heinz Rode, head of paediatric surgery at Red Cross Children’s Hospital, told the Cape Argus: “If she gets the appropriate modern treatment, (Aniek) has a 50-50 chance of survival.”
Ten days later, Aniek remained on a respirator, but Rode said she had been given “allografts” (donor skin) on her arms and the “acticoat”, (a dressing with silver in it) had “controlled the infection magnificently”.
She was making “appropriate movements” and he hoped her condition would allow him to take her off her ventilator. But Rode remained “greatly concerned” that Aniek’s feet, legs and hands were so severely burnt she would not regain full use of them.
Father and daughter were in hospital for five months. After being discharged, they had intensive rehabilitation and several operations.
Now, more than nine years later, Aniek is 18 and in Grade 12.
She said: “You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it. In my case, I decided not to react but just to look ahead.”
Erica said of Aniek’s journey: “She is a well-adjusted, normal girl who goes to school, hangs out with friends, has a boyfriend and does everything a girl her age would expect to do. She has done well academically and expects an A average in her final exams.
“Her dad, Paul, has also healed incredibly well, and is living a completely normal life. Both are scarred on the outside, but resilient on the inside.
“Aniek just wants to get on with it. She doesn’t want people fussing over her or treating her any differently. She is confident, compassionate, bright, mature, hardworking, highly motivated and has a wicked sense of humour.
“She can achieve anything she wants. She inspires me every day. We could never have survived this without the support of our families and friends, as well as the people of Stellenbosch and acquaintances and strangers all over the world.
“We can never thank them all, but we are for ever grateful. We try to live with a ‘paying it forward’ approach, in honour of the abundance of kindness we received when we needed it most.”
Aniek hopes to have a gap year to work and travel, and would like to study art and possibly journalism.