Pretoria - A girl who astonished health-care professionals with her remarkable progress following a severe brain injury has, one year later, become a shining example of what a difference rehabilitation can make to the developing brain.
Nhlelo Chauke, 3, was travelling home from a family visit in Limpopo in January last year when her mother’s vehicle was involved in an accident that left her unresponsive. Paramedics resuscitated her at the scene.
After three weeks of fighting for her life at Netcare Montana Hospital, Nhlelo was transferred to Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Johannesburg.
According to Professor Andre Mochan, a neurologist practising at the paediatric unit of the rehabilitation facility, it was clear that Nhlelo had a long way to go in regaining brain functionality.
She had suffered a brain injury. Due to the impact of the accident, the nerves and cells had been badly shaken, resulting in bleeding in multiple parts of the brain.
On arrival, she was non-communicative, had difficulty responding to visual stimuli and her movements were unco-ordinated.
She was unable to sit up or hold up her head.
“Nhlelo’s scores were very low, but there were some hopeful signs, such as her ability to move her limbs and open her eyes,” Mochan said.
Her brain injury was so severe that the team needed to go right back to the basics of baby movements, including learning to roll and sit.
Nhlelo’s father, Mzamani Steven Chauke, recalls the relief that he and his family felt as Nhlelo began to improve.
“At the time of the accident, I was still in Limpopo, as I was going to drive back home a couple of days after my wife who needed to return to work. I am a paramedic and, when I received the call, I didn't even know if my little girl would make it through resuscitation.”
The father said he was at first told that Nhlelo had a very slim chance of survival.
“There was nothing we could do but pray, and our prayers were truly answered. Nhlelo survived and soon recognised me again.”
Charne Cox, Nhlelo’s physiotherapist, said they knew how difficult the time in hospital was for children.
The brightly coloured paediatric unit at the rehabilitation hospital was specially geared towards making the children feel at home.
The team, which included an occupational therapist, speech therapist, social worker, psychologist, as well as nurses, all worked together to get her functioning again.
It was a long process, which included that she had to be correctly positioned for swallowing her food and ensuring that her lungs were clear once the feeding had finished.
The therapy also involved the use of a tilt table to familiarise Nhlelo with the sensation of standing again, while an optometrists did visual stimulation exercises in a darkroom to strengthen her eye muscles.
The speech therapist worked on imitating gestures to encourage Nhlelo to communicate by waving and smiling.
Originally, Nhlelo had been booked into Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital for 12 weeks, but her progress was so exceptional that she was able to go home after just eight weeks.
Looking back, Chauke recalls that before the accident he had not realised the significance of Nhlelo’s second name, Confidence.
“At the time, it was just a name that I chose but it came to have great meaning as our little Nhlelo has all the confidence she needs to take on and overcome life’s challenges,” he said.
Nhlelo was discharged in April last year and now, a year later, her father sees her recovery as a miracle.
“She attends crèche every day and while she still has some difficulties with her balance, she is improving all the time.”
Mochan, meanwhile, said that each brain injury patient was different, and it was almost impossible to predict what the outcome might be during the rehabilitation process.
“We cannot force the brain to do things that it is not capable of doing, but it shows us what it can do during the treatment process,” Mochan said.