Isaac and Ntombi Sokhela told a gentle white lie to keep their daughter’s dream a secret. They woke her up early on Tuesday and told her it was because they were going to have something to drink at Soweto’s Maponya Mall.
But when the convoy of Netcare vehicles arrived at the dilapidated Dube Hostel to pick up the family, eight-year-old Nonduduzo was puzzled. She wondered why the lights were flashing, and where they were going.
When they arrived at Netcare’s Garden City Hospital, she found out when a nurse’s cap and apron were put over her new school uniform. Nonduduzo smiled, a bit uncertainly.
“Hello, nurse,” said Maggie Maila, a dream-maker for the Reach for a Dream Foundation. Nonduduzo grinned happily. Her dream had come true. She was going to be a nurse for the day.
“This is perfect,” whispered Ntombi as she gazed proudly at her daughter as cameras flashed. “Look how happy she is. She didn’t even know what we were planning. Her dream is to be a nurse and it never changes.”
Nonduduzo was born with a congenital heart defect, and has undergone surgery and is on continual drug treatment to repair the hole in her heart.
“I want to be a nurse so I can help people get better,” she said, shyly.
Then the little girl was whisked into the hospital to have tea and cake with a friendly tour guide Tilla Opperman, the theatre matron.
“Do you know this is a real nurse’s stethoscope?” said Opperman to Nonduduzo. “This is what real nurses use. Listen, this is a nurse’s heart,” she pressed the stethoscope to her chest and Nonduduzo’s.
Then Opperman led the little girl to the neonatal ward, where she stared in wonder at the tiny premature babies fighting for their lives. Seeing such a small baby scared her, she told her parents.
Nurse Sarona Nikgodi told her that her own baby was waiting in a crib and encouraged her to take the baby’s temperature. “I’m going to call her Londeka,” said Nonduduzo, gently cradling the doll.
In the theatre, Opperman held up an assortment of syringes.
“These are the tiny ones, and these bigger ones are their brothers,” she told her. “Next time you come to the hospital, you won’t be so scared because now you know all these things.”
As Opperman lay Nonduduzo on to a hospital bed, she took her blood pressure and let her listen to her heartbeat as she watched the monitor. She was awestruck.
“You have to learn for six years and then you’re nearly as clever as a doctor,” Opperman advised her as they left the ward.
“It’s amazing,” commented Beryl Canham, Reach for a Dream’s donor relations administrator, as she watched Nonduduzo carefully inspect medical devices.
“These sick children spend so much time in hospital, but are still so excited to be here.”
The foundation has helped 30 000 children with life-threatening illnesses to realise their dreams.
But Nonduduzo was the first child who yearned to become a nurse.
Maila “doesn’t do PlayStation dreams”. She seeks out real ones. She encountered Nonduduzo on a visit to the cardiac clinic at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
“I was so impressed by her. I asked her what her dream was. She told me she wanted to be a nurse to help kids.”
Canham interjected: “Most children want room make-overs, to meet a celebrity, go on shopping sprees or to the zoo.”
“Sometimes their dreams are their friends’ dreams,” added Maila.
“But you keep on talking and you dig their actual dreams out. Sometimes you have to assess them three times before you find out what they really want. It makes me feel so good helping these kids and putting a smile on their faces.”
When Ntombi, who works nights at Metrorail, gave birth to Nonduduzo’s brother, she visited her mother in hospital.
“She thought that nurses make babies. That’s another reason why I think she wants to be a nurse. She tells us all the time that she can’t wait to grow up and be one,” explained Isaac.
He had never felt as proud of his daughter as he did on Tuesday. “We didn’t believe it when Netcare and Reach for a Dream kept calling us and telling us this day is coming. On Friday they asked us for her shoe size and my wife and I had to keep it secret the whole weekend.
“But I’m so proud and so excited for my daughter. I will never forget this day.”
Nonduduzo is petite and Netcare couldn’t get a nurse’s uniform to fit her. But it was her new school shoes she was most excited about, which touched Linda Pretorius, Netcare’s national resuscitation coordinator.
“It humbles you when you see a child so excited to get a pair of shoes – it makes getting up in the morning that much more important. She kept on asking us, are these new shoes for her.”
The Sokhelas moved to Joburg from KwaZulu-Natal in 2004 and Isaac and Ntombi struggled to find work at first. When their daughter was diagnosed, “we knew we had to stay here to keep her close to hospitals. We wanted to give her everything she needs,” Isaac said.
“At the beginning, we didn’t know what we were dealing with, especially when the doctors told us she needed an operation or she would die. But she is very good with her medication and reminds us if we’ve forgotten to give it to her.
“She loves to play outside and dance. She used to struggle to breathe, but since she has been on her medication, she has been so well. We don’t tell her what she is dealing with. She is going to ask us why she is sick and that’s why we don’t tell her.
“She is young and it could affect her. Maybe then she will think about it a lot and think that she won’t be able to play with her friends. She’s coping and she’s very strong.”
Isaac dreams of moving his family to the new low-cost flats that have been built for residents of Dube Hostel, where they share two cramped rooms.
“I want us to be able to give our kids the best, as this is not a good environment for them.”
On Tuesday night, Nonduduzo didn’t sleep. She was still excited and couldn’t wait to introduce her friends to Londeka, her “patient” and play with her new toy nurse’s kit.
“She keeps on asking when she is going back to the hospital. She still wants to be a nurse, but she is scared to work with the tiny babies,” smiled Isaac.