Time was running out fast for eight-month-old Ashley Meerkotter when specialists from the world-class Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital performed a lifesaving operation to repair a hole in her heart.
“We didn’t know if our brave little warrior would make it to her first birthday in February next year,” Ashley’s father, Adriaan Meerkotter, said.
At three weeks old, Ashley had suddenly stopped breathing.
“I ran to a nearby pharmacy, where the clinic sister, thankfully, revived her. As a mother, it was terrifying to see my baby lose consciousness like that,” mother Elmarie Meerkotter said.
Over the next few weeks, their daughter stopped breathing several more times, which was attributed to silent reflux, and the family were taught how to resuscitate her while they sought a solution.
“It was a very stressful time for us. In addition to Ashley’s health problems, I lost my job in IT support, and we were packing to move from Carletonville to Middelburg, Mpumalanga, when Ashley stopped breathing. But this time, we couldn’t revive her and had to rush our daughter to the hospital,” the father said.
So began an anxious journey of tests, scans and referrals that led to Ashley being diagnosed at six weeks, with ventricular septal defect (VSD), a large hole in the wall between the two lower chambers of the heart.
In the public sector, the specialised and resource-intensive paediatric heart procedures have a significant waiting list, and the family’s financial situation could not accommodate private health care.
The earliest date the family could get surgery for their child was March next year.
“When the Maboneng Foundation brought Ashley’s desperate situation to our attention, we knew she needed the Netcare Foundation and Netcare Sunninghill Hospital to step in to make her VSD closure operation happen much sooner,” Mande Toubkin, Netcare’s general manager of trauma, transplant and corporate social investment said.
Cardiothoracic surgeon and co-founder of the Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute, Dr Erich Schürmann, said the operation was so time sensitive in babies like Ashley because the congenital heart defect damaged the arteries of the lungs as the child grew. There was a critical window of a few months where the surgery could prevent irreversible harm.
The specialised procedure was recently performed by Schürmann and cardiothoracic surgeons Dr Martin Myburgh of the Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute, as well as anaesthetist Dr Krishnee Naidoo and cardiac perfusionist Mogotsi Mophosho, who gave their time and expertise free of charge to help Ashley.
After spending just three nights in hospital, Ashley was well enough to be discharged and to continue her recovery at home.
Her parents said she had been going from strength to strength ever since.
“Our daughter has every chance of living a normal, healthy life, and we couldn’t have asked for better doctors,” Ashley’s father said.
The mother added that their child was doing well
“Ashley is more playful, and full of laughs since her operation,” she said.
About 10 000 babies are born with a congenital heart defect in South Africa each year, yet only a fraction receive the surgical interventions needed in time to prevent life-limiting harm, says the Maboneng Foundation, which coordinates medical expertise and donor funding to help children like Ashley.