Her smile is bigger and the shine in her eyes brighter. Her hair “is growing by the metre” – taking root even on the cloned skin on her arms where doctors said hair wouldn’t develop.
And little Isabella “Pippie” Kruger is sitting on her own. “She’s just more perfect every day,” says her mother, Anice, as her daughter’s gaze and grin lock on her while they playfully battle over a piece of dry wors – Pippie’s favourite.
“She wakes up like this – with a big smile – and goes to sleep like this. There’s not a care in the world. She went from terrible twos to sweet 16, nothing in between,” Anice smiles, layering kisses on the three-year-old.
In June, the toddler underwent groundbreaking surgery at Netcare’s Garden City Hospital. It involved using her own cloned skin, grown in a US lab in Boston, after most of her body sustained third-degree burns when a gel firelighter exploded in her father Erwin’s hands on New Year’s Eve at the family’s Limpopo farm. The toddler has fought her way through five heart attacks, kidney failure, pneumonia and over 45 operations.
“They said hair would never grow under the Epicel (the cloned skin), which does not have an epidermis. But look here,” says Kruger, proudly showing off the tiny blonde hairs. “It’s not just the Epicel – it’s Pippie and it’s God.”
Gone is the painful-looking gnarled pose that characterised Pippie’s appearance since her surgery. Her fingers are unclenched and her toes perfectly straight. The only reminder of the burn wounds on her feet is a tiny heart-shaped scar.
In December, she will have an operation at Garden City to remove the tough, dome-shaped keloids under her arm. “It will be all the faces she knows (at the hospital). Her arm will be smooth and will be able to move. It won’t be so itchy anymore.”
Pippie is also rediscovering her body. “A few weeks ago, we went to see Dr [Ridwan] Mia [the plastic surgeon who performed Pippie’s surgery] at his office. She was licking him all over.”
Kruger and her husband Erwin recently returned from a Margate holiday with their one-year-old son Arno, who has lived with his grandparents in Limpopo while Kruger and Pippie have been in Joburg for the treatment. It was important to bond with their son, she said.
Pippie stayed with Oupa and Ouma. “That’s where she learnt to sit. This morning she sat up for four minutes. It was too much for me. I was like ‘Pippie you’re getting too clever’.”
But as the grim anniversary of the accident approaches, Kruger feels her courage falter. “It’s getting closer to that day. I took December 31 and January 1 out of my calendar. I’m taking a sleeping pill. They can wake me up on January 2.
“My mom will babysit the kids. I know nothing bad is going to happen. Maybe she starts talking or walking and I’m going to miss it but I’m not strong enough to face that day again.”
Her days are devoted to Pippie, who undergoes rehab three times a week, and at 14kg is only one kilo short of where the dietician wants her to be.
Kruger would like to be home on the family farm, kitted with a rehab gym for Pippie and other young burn survivors, by April. “I know it’s where God wants me to be. I don’t wear socks because I get blessed out of them every day.”