Rare infection kills teen

2012-09-04 00:00

A “ONE in three million” illness has killed a Pietermaritzburg teenager.

Fourteen-year-old Carla Serfontein died yesterday of necrotic pneumonia, after spending 18 days in an induced coma in the hope she could survive the infection attacking her lungs.

Carla was a Grade 9 pupil at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High and dreamt of becoming a vet. She was active in sports and good at maths.

Her mother, Deirdre Serfontein, said yesterday the family made the decision to switch off the machines keeping Carla alive.

“It wasn’t easy, but we realised that we didn’t have much choice. We thought it was better for her. Sometimes you have to face reality.

“We told her to fly,” said Serfontein.

Carla has a twin, Hannah, and an older sister, Ruth.

Serfontein said Carla originally had flu and a slight cough with a “funny sound”.

She was only sick for a day and a half before her mother decided to take her to hospital on August 14.

The illness turned into something terrible, an infection that destroyed Carla’s lungs (see box).

Later that evening, she was put on a medical ventilator and then an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine. That was the last time she could speak.

“She was tired and was in a continuous positive airway pressure [CPAP] machine. She was battling for air. We were ready to leave and she said: ‘Mom, don’t forget your bag’,” said Serfontein.

“She also kept asking ‘when are we going home?’.”

Carla’s mother said her daughter’s lungs were so damaged that she required numerous transfusions of blood and platelets — sometimes seven units a day. Some platelets had to be transported from Johannesburg.

The family made an appeal for people to donate blood to help Carla, and others.

SA National Blood Services (SANBS) collections manager Fathima Shaikh said Carla’s story drew hundreds of people from all walks of life to donate blood. About 400 units were collected in KZN alone, and more in other centres.

Serfontein said she will embark on a campaign with the SANBS in memory of her daughter.

She described Carla as vibrant, cheeky, lively, fun and oozing with attitude. “She was cheeky in a nice way,” her mother laughed.

This year Carla became the KZN Midlands under 15 diving champion. She was a runner and also did gymnastics. “She leaves a massive hole in our lives.”

The family set up a Facebook group to keep friends informed about Carla’s progress. Yesterday, hundreds of messages of condolence were posted.

A friend, Shari Rene Judd-Stevens, wrote: “Carla Serfontein is one in a million. Carla was a friend of mine and I will miss those days swimming and being with her at all the galas. I one day wished to beat her at swimming. I looked up to Carla and her abilities in sport.”

Serfontein’s family, including her father, Mark, thanked everyone who supported them.

• gabisile.ngcobo@witness.co.za

The facts: necrotic pneumonia

ACCORDING to Dr Brett Cullis, an intensive care specialist, necrotic pneumonia is a rare disease, contracted by one or two people in three million.

He told The Witness that the bacterial infection destroys lung tissue. The bacteria that causes it is in the community.

“People usually get it after they’ve had flu.”

It has a high mortality rate, meaning most people who contract the infection die.

Cullis said Carla was given every conceivable treatment, but she was simply too sick to recover.

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