A month-old baby and a seven-year-old boy from Port Elizabeth became the first beneficiaries of a programme by the Thanda Heart Foundation at the weekend. They underwent surgery at a private facility in the Eastern Cape city as the state hospital remains closed.
Carrying on the dream of her friend and mentor, the late Prof Lungile Pepeta, Dr Adele Greyling – who started the Thanda Heart Foundation – and her colleague Samkelo Giyana, waived their fees while an anonymous donor covered the hospital expenses for the two young patients.
Pepeta, the former dean of Nelson Mandela University’s faculty of health sciences, who died from Covid-19 in August, passionately believed that children being treated at state hospitals should receive the same standard of care as those whose parents were on medical aid.
His lifelong dream was to open a facility in the Eastern Cape similar to Cape Town’s Red Cross Children’s Hospital.
More than 60 children are at Dora Nginza hospital in Port Elizabeth’s Zwide township awaiting treatment as the cath lab at the state facility remains closed.
The state cath lab broke in October 2018 and plans to replace it have been held up by red tape and construction delays. Meanwhile, parents of the sick children are wondering why they cannot be treated at the cath lab in Mthatha.
Since mid-2019, the state no longer paid for procedures to be done at private cath labs.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape department of health, Judy Ngoloyi, said the Port Elizabeth facility would be “fully operational” by November this year. She said the same thing last year, referring to November 2019.
Some of the young patients can’t wait much longer.
After learning of seven-year-old Joshua van der Merwe’s condition, an anonymous donor gave the Thanda Heart Foundation enough money to cover the costs of two procedures.
Joshua was born to a drug-addicted mother and subsequently taken into the care of Elmarie van der Merwe, who eventually adopted him. She noticed, when he was a baby, that his skin was very blue. They visited a pediatrician, who then called a cardiologist: they asked her only one question: “How is this baby still alive?”
Doctors discovered that he had a heart with a single ventricle and he underwent a number of operations while still an infant. In August, Elmarie was told that Joshua needed cath lab intervention within two weeks.
Doctors had to redirect Joshua’s blood supply to keep him alive. As his oxygen saturation levels are under 75%, he needs to have a cardiac catheterisation to allow open heart surgery to be performed.
Samkelo Giyana said the procedure was necessary in order to provide surgeons with visual images of Joshua’s heart, to assess whether surgery can be undertaken.
Giyana said on Tuesday that the catheterisation procedure “brought good news” and that Joshua was ready for his surgery. They now had to set a date.
Dr Greyling, who became the first doctor in Africa to specialise in heart rhythm disturbances in children, initially cared for Joshua. After being unable to work for over a year as the health department failed to replace the cath lab, she left for private practice in the Western Cape. Greyling then started the Thanda Heart Foundation.
Dr Pepeta made it possible for children to receive non-invasive procedures for heart defects in the Eastern Cape. He also started a programme to train specialists. He trained both Greyling and Giyana. Greyling worked alongside Pepeta at Dora Nginza hospital, taking over from him when he joined the university.
Friday was the first time Greyling had returned to Port Elizabeth since the death of Pepeta in August.
“It was emotional for me to come back,” she said. “But it was nice to speak to his colleagues and remember him.”
Greyling said she was happy to report that the procedures on both children went well.
Van der Merwe, Joshua’s adoptive mother, said Joshua charmed everyone around him at the hospital. “He came home, put on his Spiderman suit and jumped around a little. Then he put some music on for us to do his dance, and then he went to bed.”
Giyana said it was also great that the second patient, the one-month-old boy, could finally go home after they managed to put a stent in the artery to his lung. DM/MC