Nine-year-old Lefa Rapanyane, from Mamelodi, was legally blind before undergoing cornea transplants to both eyes, made possible by the Netcare Foundation and Nedbank Foundation. Picture: Supplied

Johannesburg - She was only five years old when her vision deteriorated so fast that she was classified legally blind and medical practitioners even recommended that she be enrolled in a school for the blind to equip her for a life without eyesight. 

After trying for years to find assistance for her, Lefa Lauryn Rapanyane's parents and her teacher finally found what they were looking for so desperately - a double cornea transplant to restore her sight thanks to ophthalmologist Dr Ebrahim Mia, from Netcare Waterfall City Hospital in Midrand, and the Netcare Foundation.

"Lefa, whose name means ‘Gift’ or ‘Inheritance’, has always been a very bright little girl. Her teacher became concerned that she was unable to see what was written on the chalkboard at school and we noticed that she had trouble writing on the lines in her exercise books," the girl’s mother, Sello Rapanyane, said.

Knowing that affordability was a concern, as Lefa’s mother is unemployed and her father, John Madisa, is a bus driver, the teacher learnt of Mia’s expertise and the Netcare Foundation’s work in providing life-changing healthcare interventions to disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Lefa’s parents took her for a consultation with Mia, who diagnosed bilateral keratitis. "When I first assessed Lefa, she was legally blind due to keratitis in both eyes. The corneas were opaque, or hazy, and this was why her vision was impaired," Mia said.

The doctor determined that a double cornea transplant would be the best option to restore Lefa’s eyesight and both he and anaesthetist Dr Karryn Mathie offered their time and expertise to assist the child free of charge. 

With the Netcare Foundation covering the cost of the donor corneas, which had to be flown in from overseas, as well as the hospital and theatre costs, the first cornea transplant was carried out on Lefa’s left eye in 2018.

A year later on 11 June Lefa underwent her second cornea transplant at Netcare Waterfall City Hospital. 

"It takes several months for the eye to heal sufficiently for the stitches to be removed, but after her first cornea transplant her vision improved significantly. She could see colour and started to see more detail in her surroundings," Mia said.

Lefa’s mother says that the improvement in her child’s vision following the first cornea transplant was in itself remarkable. 

"She looked at her baby brother and she said to me ‘wow, my brother is so beautiful’. I realised then that she had not been able to see what he looked like until after her first operation. She could recognise his voice, but could not see his face," Rapanyane said.

Mia says that even though the first cornea transplant has yielded good results, the second eye would also require surgical intervention. "If only one eye is corrected, the child could, over time, develop a lazy eye and her educational development could fall behind. 

"Lefa is such a bright child and we want to give her the best possible chance for her future".

He said that they anticipated Lefa’s vision would improve vastly after the second cornea transplant. 

"She may still require spectacles, however, we are expecting her unaided vision to be significantly better," Mia said.

Lefa’s father, Madisa, says the procedures Mia and the Netcare Foundation have made possible have opened up a world of opportunities for his daughter. 

General manager: emergency, trauma, transplant and corporate social investment at Netcare, Mande Toubkin, says that the Netcare Foundation recognises the tremendous difference the cornea transplants can make to Lefa’s life and future prospects.

"Many of us take our vision for granted and the dedication Lefa has demonstrated in trying to succeed at school despite her significantly impaired eyesight shows her incredible strength of character. 

"We are delighted to have assisted her and have every confidence that with her restored vision she will be ready to make the most of every opportunity in future," Toubkin said.

Established in 2010, the Netcare Foundation is registered as a public benefit company governed by a board of trustees. 

The Nedbank Foundation, which has supported the Gift of Sight project in association with the Netcare Foundation to provide cataract surgery for underprivileged individuals for many years, donated funds towards Lefa’s double cornea transplant. 

Executive head of the Nedbank Foundation, Lindiwe Temba, said: "Our Foundation’s support of Gift of Sight, as well as other healthcare initiatives in South Africa, is a tangible expression of Nedbank’s purpose to use its expertise and resources to make a positive contribution to the development of our people.

"It is a great privilege to be able to assist individuals such as Lefa, and we wish her every success for the future."

Lefa's parents and teacher have thanked all involved in the restoration of Lefa's vision and for changing their lives.

"For years, we have prayed to God for a miracle, and now Lefa is being blessed with the gift of sight," Lefa’s father said.

African News Agency (ANA)