The little burn victim who loves to dance

2013-04-28 14:01

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Celiwe (5) puts on brave face for skin transplant

While Dr Ridwan Mia paced outside the paediatric ICU at Garden City Hospital, Celiwe Maseko was dancing.

The little girl was about to go under Mia’s knife in a highly complex surgery – but, with scores of journalists’ cameras turned on her, she didn’t seem particularly worried.

She smiled and danced ingwazi (the snake dance, a style that was popular some years ago) while photographers jostled each other for the best shot.

The five-year-old’s parents, Katlego and Brown, looked stunned as they watched their daughter lap up the limelight.

Many had expected a tragical little burn victim when they arrived at the hospital on Thursday afternoon for a press conference ahead of the surgery.

After all, little Celiwe’s story is harrowing: in January she and some friends were playing with matches at a neighbour’s house in Thabazimbi, Limpopo.

A burning match was flicked onto Celiwe, and her dress ignited. She was badly burned on her back, stomach and thighs.

Her father works in Thabazimbi, but the family lives in Kagiso, Krugersdorp.

On Thursday, though, she was like any bubbly little girl – albeit one in a green surgical gown.

She giggled when asked how she was feeling. Then she turned to her father, seeking his permission to respond.

He reassured her: “Tshela u-aunt ukuthi unjani (tell Aunty how you’re feeling.”

“Ngiright (I’m well),” she said, in her child-like high-pitched voice.

“Ngiyofaka iskin namhlanje (I’m going to have a skin transplant today),” she said. Then she was wheeled into the theatre on a stretcher, and a tense silence settled over the waiting area.

Mia is no stranger to skin grafts. He shot to international fame after performing a similar procedure on Isabella “Pippie” Kruger last June.

Pippie (now 4) became South Africa’s most famous little burn victim, her brave fight capturing South Africans’ imaginations.

Pippie Kruger was in the same boat. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

The procedure uses the patient’s own skin, samples of which are flown to a laboratory in the United States and grown there for two weeks.

The samples are then harvested and flown back for the complex, delicate surgery. The samples must be grafted onto the patient within 24 hours or they are unusable.

Pippie’s operation was hugely successful – today she can eat and talk, and she keeps getting better.

But Mia was not complacent this week.

“The nerves are killing me, it’s as if I am going to do this for the first time.

“The fact that the procedure has only been performed once in the world on a dark skin (very successfully on a patient in the United States) makes it worse because all eyes will be on me to see what I can do.”

Katlego Maseko waited quietly for her daughter’s surgery to end.

Celiwe’s parents Katlego and Brown Maseko cheer her up before the proceedings start. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

“I cannot lie and say that I am not scared. That’s my little girl on that operating table and even though I know that she is strong she is still too young to have such a major operation.”

She had faith in the surgical team and in God, she said.

Maseko accompanied her daughter into the surgery to watch her be anaesthetised.

“I watched her drifting off and said a small prayer before leaving the theatre. I asked God to bring our daughter to us and help the doctors restore her skin,” Maseko said.

Part of her daughter’s bravery, she explained, came from understanding the process – this was, after all, her 18th surgery since January 4.

Chances of Celiwe’s skin being fully restored are very slim because the cloned skin doesn’t have pigment.

Mia explained: “It’s so thin it is like ‘Gladwrap’, and is only five to eight layers compared to the 500 or more layers that ordinarily cover a child’s body.”

He worked with a team of doctors, including his brother Reza, to complete the surgery in less than three hours.

Mia wasn’t the only thing Celiwe and Pippie have in common.

Celiwe’s operation was made possible with the help of the Pippie’s Gesiggie Foundation which Pippie’s mother Anice established last year.

Kruger was there on Thursday to support the Masekos. “This is like deja vu for me,” she said.

“I see myself when I look at Celiwe’s mother because I know the pain and fear she is going through. The trauma will live with them for some time but they must remember that as Celiwe heals so will their hearts.”

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