‘Her skin cooked’

By admin
07 April 2016

This is the article that first appeared in YOU after the horrific New Years' Eve accident that almost cost then two-year-old Isabella 'Pippie' Kruger her life.

Four years later, we caught up with Pippie and her family. Find out how the six-year-old is doing the latest issue, in stores now. You can also get a digital copy here.

Erwin and Anicè at the hospital. PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi Erwin and Anicè at the hospital. PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi

She's a tiny bundle of bandages behind a glass partition.

The toddler’s small hands are visible among the many tubes and monitors. Scorched cheeks, a small nose and a mouth peep from between the gauze.

A freak New Year’s Eve accident has left Isabella Kruger (2) of Lephalale, Limpopo, with third-degree burns over much of her body. An unscathed right foot resting on top of the bed covers is one of the few parts of her little body untouched by flames.

More than two months after a firelighter gel container exploded at a braai and struck her, Isabella’s still battling to be whole again.

“Putting her under anaesthetic each time is a risk because she’s so tiny. They can’t take her to the operating theatre because she might get an infection, so  everything is done in her room,” her mother, Anicè (27), says.

Pippie Pippie's parents have to wear masks if they want to go anywhere near their little girl. PHOTO: Supplied

Isabella faces the prospect of anaesthesia 30 to 40 more times so her wounds can be scraped and her bandages changed. A synthetic layer of collagen has to be implanted between her skin and muscles so her skin can be smooth. Skin grafts and rehab will follow, which could take up to three years.

“There’s enough skin on her body to use for grafts but we don’t want to use it because it will make her wound area bigger. Only her foot, buttocks, the back of her arms and legs and her private parts didn’t burn. They’ll have to use cadaver skin,” Anicè says. “My poor child.”

But once Pippie – Isabella’s nickname – is out of danger of infection and the first skin grafts have been done they’re starting a new procedure. “I’ve spoken to a doctor at Harvard in America. He can use her stem cells to grow her own skin for the grafts. He says there’s a 75 per cent chance she’ll have very little scarring. We won’t have to go to America; it can be done here.”

The family have all their hopes for their blonde-haired angel pinned on this promise.

Pippie was a carefree toddler before the accident. PHOTO: Supplied Pippie was a carefree toddler before the accident. PHOTO: Supplied

Before entering Pippie’s room in the intensive-care unit of the Garden City Clinic, Joburg, Anicè thoroughly disinfects herself. Dad Erwin’s hands are still bandaged. They also wear masks because any infection could be a setback for Pippie.

Her heart stopped two weeks after the accident. She also recently suffered kidney failure and had to have dialysis. She has regular blood transfusions and every second day her wounds are cleaned.

“Hello, Pippie,” her parents say. Her lips move but there’s no sound. Erwin (39) bends down and whispers in her ear. “She’s so brave,” Anicè says. “After the accident she didn’t cry once. All she wanted to know was whether Daddy’s hands had been hurt. The first time she cried was on her 19th day in hospital when blood was drawnfrom her foot.”

Anicè never leaves Pippie’s side. While she looks after her daughter, both grannies help take care of Pippie’s brother, eight-monthold Arno. The couple still can’t believe what a braai fire did to their child. “Blink once. That’s how fast it happened,” Erwin says.

He’d laid the fire as usual and poured firelighter gel on top. “I’ve been using the gel for six years because it’s safe. You can buy it at any outdoor store. It’s not runny; it stays where you pour it. I used it in the same way I always have. We just don’t understand it,” he says.

With greatgrandmother Anna Kouenhoven (left) and grandmother Loesje Barnard after her bandages were removed. PHOTO: Supplied With greatgrandmother Anna Kouenhoven (left) and grandmother Loesje Barnard after her bandages were removed. PHOTO: Supplied

He’d made two fires metres apart. Pippie was playing about two metres away from one of them. “The flames wouldn’t take. I fetched an extra piece of wood, used more gel and tossed it on the first fire. It started burning.”

He was on the way to the other fire with the almost empty 5-litre bottle. “I hadn’t even put gel on the wood when I heard it.”

There was a hissing sound, then an explosion that sounded like a gunshot. Suddenly his hands and his daughter’s body were on fire. “A blue, transparent flame – I didn’t even realise my hands were burning; all I could see was Pippie on fire.”

He pressed her against his body but the flames didn’t die. “We’d smother them in one spot but they’d pop up on another.”

Anicè used her T-shirt and her mother-in-law a doormat but in vain. Only when Erwin wrapped Pippie in a tablecloth and rolled her on the grass did the blaze go out.

“But some parts were still burning. I could see and hear her hair was on fire,” he says.

“Her skin cooked,” Anicè says. “It came off her like a glove when I touched her.” Erwin suspects gas might have built up in the bottle, causing an explosion that deposited the last bit of gel on Pippie. “It’s so strange – her dress didn’t burn but when the doctors cut it off her she had third-degree burns on her chest.”

Erwin and Anicè at the hospital. His hands were burnt in the incident. PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi Erwin and Anicè at the hospital. His hands were burnt in the incident. PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi

Their faith and people’s support are carrying them through this time. Pippie’s story has touched people countrywide when pictures of her burnt body were  posted on the internet. The pictures of the her body are too upsetting to publish, but across SA people are making donations to the Pippie se Gesiggie (“Pippie’s Face”) fund; later the funds will also be used to help other burn victims. “People are wonderful. Their prayers get us through. Next thing I knew they were organising a concert at Lephalale for Pippie. [Afrikaans singers] Bobby and Karlien van Jaarsveld will be performing. All the money will be donated to the Pippi se Gesiggie fund. Our medical aid covers everything but we have to pay for the stem-cell treatment. And that’s very expensive,” Anicè says. It will be a long recovery. Pippie has physiotherapy twice a day and after the skin grafts she’ll be in a rehab clinic for at least a month. She’ll have to learn to walk and talk again; learn how to be a child again. But Pippie’s proven she’s a fighter. And where there’s faith and love, there’s hope.

Firelighter gel -- handle with caution

“Many gel products in SA don’t have adequate warnings and instructions for use on the bottles. Our product clearly states it should never be added to a fire or a flame,” says Adrienne Barrett, manufacturer of the gel Greenheat. The safest way is to add a heaped tablespoon of gel to the wood or charcoal. “Make sure there’s enough ventilation around the wood. Light the fire carefully. Once the flames take, add more wood or charcoal. And never add gel to a fire. The product contains ethanol, which is highly flammable and can explode. Also the flame will always move to the source.”

How to make a fire safely

Don’t get impatient when a fire doesn’t take quickly, says Tristan Jones, a volunteer paramedic with Children of Fire, a charity organisation that helps young burn victims and educates communites about fire safety.

“Never put accelerants such as gel, turpentine, petrol, thinners or paraffin on the fire to speed things up. The fire could flare up too quickly and even jump out of

the braai area,” he says.

The safest way is to use wood or charcoal, says Jay Kanniappen, northern department head of Ethekwini Fire and Emergency Services in Durban.

“Use paper or a very thin layer of candle or floor wax to get the fire going,” he suggests. “Stack a layer of wood, smear on the wax and place twigs in between.

Put larger pieces on top, ensure good ventilation and then light your fire.” Liquid fuels are highly flammable and it’s difficult to control the amount you use. Splashes are also common. By the time you’ve poured over the liquid and lit the fire the evaporated fuel has formed an explosive compound in the air that can cause an explosion. “Firelighter gels work in a similar way to liquid fuels and pose the same risks,” Kanniappen adds. The firelighter bricks people often use to start a fire are safe and the most common way of lighting fire.

Over four years and 55 ops later -- see Pippie's progress in the latest issue of YOU, in stores now.

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