Isabella Pippie Kruger being fed lunch by her mother, Anice. Picture: Eleanor Momberg

Pippie Kruger’s eyes and face light up as her mother hides behind the door to her hospital room pretending to play hide and seek.

“Where is Pippie? Where is the little princess?” Anice Kruger asks from the passage as the little girl turns her head and smiles, looking for her mother.

It was two months ago that three-year-old Pippie Kruger underwent groundbreaking skin transplant surgery after she suffered burns over most of her little body when a firelighter exploded in her father Erwin’s hands on New Year’s Eve. He sustained serious burns to his hands.

Confined to a cot in the paediatric ICU of the Garden City Clinic for more than six months, Pippie was transferred to the Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Auckland Park just over a month ago. Her room door bears the sign “sexy girl” besides sterilisation instructions for visitors.

In recent weeks the bandages have been removed and the grafts grown from her own skin in a laboratory in the US have healed well. All that remains are keloids - collagen-like scars that have formed on her face and other parts of her body where the new skin was transplanted. Her little hands are in braces to assist with stretching and mobility.

Her room is at the entrance to the paediatric rehabilitation centre, which one can only enter on invitation and following registration with a security guard.

Above her bed are stuffed animals and two large rag dolls. A large Hello Kitty doll rests on the bedside table and a previous patient’s luminous dolphins glow in the dark on the ceiling and on one wall. In front of the bed is a house and garden built from Lego blocks by Anice.

“She loves Lego and starts giggling when you show her what you are doing,” says Anice.

It is a far cry from the sterile ICU, and not quite the same as the bedroom in the cottage she shared with her family last weekend - her first weekend pass.

Erwin and the couple’s year-old son Arno went to Joburg to spend the long weekend with Pippie at Anice’s rented Melville residence.

“I didn’t want to bring her back. We had so many visitors and it was wonderful being able to take her home.

“She will be going home every weekend if there are no complications,” said Anice.

But, this weekend, the little girl has remained in hospital because she has a slight bladder infection.

Pippie, christened Isabella, was hungry when she was returned to her room by a physiotherapist at lunchtime, eating a plate of chicken and vegetables, a small milktart, and some jelly and custard before finally declaring she had had enough.

“She eats very well,” says her mother as she feeds her another spoon of vegetables in the easy chair where they spend several hours a day.

Anice looks tired, and admits that if she had to sit quietly for a few minutes she would probably start crying.

But, the separation from her husband these past months and the strain of caring for their daughter almost 18 hours a day has brought them closer.

“I am more in love with Erwin than ever before,” she says.

Her days are long and being hands-on with the care of her daughter has caused “several nurses to become a bit irritated with me”.

As physio- and occupational therapists help Pippie to restore her motor functions so she can live a normal life again, a paediatrician takes care of her general well-being and a neurologist monitors her neurological progress.

“Because she had a stroke that affected her right arm and leg they have been very weak. But, on Wednesday night when I was giving her a bath I told her to splash me because I was also dirty, so she kicked the water with her right foot and giggled. It was such a good sign and feeling when she did that.”

While the neurologist has indicated that Pippie is brain damaged as a result of her ordeal, her mother remains adamant that she is not.

“If they think so they obviously have their reasons, but she will show them one day that she is not. I believe in her. I argue with the doctors a lot about that,” she said.

While a number of operations lie ahead to remove the keloids and there is no indication as to when Pippie will be discharged and be able to return to the family’s Lephalale farm, Anice keeps herself busy swearing she will not give up on her daughter, herself, her son and husband.

“I go where God wants me at that moment,” she says of her recent visit to a school with plastic surgeon Dr Ridwan Mia.

“I asked Him to keep me busy because if I have to go and sit and mope… Being peaceful is boring.”

Anice’s faith and dedication is soon to be featured in a TV show.

A media crew from former Top Billing presenter Dr Michael Mol’s SABC3 medical talk show Hello Doctor visited the rehabilitation centre and Garden City Clinic on Friday morning, interviewing Anice, Dr Mia and all other medical personnel involved in Pippie’s story of survival.

It is not yet known when the show will be aired. - Sunday Tribune