It has been nearly two years since Mnqobi Nhlanhla’s parents set off to try to do the near-impossible – raise R3 million for their son to have life-changing surgery and a chance to take his first step.
And, after risking it all and relocating from Johannesburg to Florida, US, in October for now two-year-old Mnqobi to begin the long surgical journey at the Paley Orthopaedic & Spine Institute at St Mary’s Medical Centre to correct his congenital deformation – called tibial hemimelia – their dream of seeing their child walk may very well come true this year.
Speaking to City Press from Florida this week, Mnqobi’s mother Nthabiseng Nhlanhla reflected on their journey so far – from his initial surgeries on both legs in November to the healing and restorative work he had to go through during his physiotherapy treatments.
City Press first published the story of baby Mnqobi in May 2019, when he was only seven months old but already facing immense challenges.
Despite being told by doctors just six days after his birth that there was no chance of saving his legs and being advised to have them amputated, Nthabiseng and her husband Mzwakhe called on their faith, refusing to consent to the procedure.
After seeking two more expert opinions, they eventually encountered Johannesburg paediatric orthopaedic surgeon Dr Mark Eltringham, who gave the young couple their first glimmer of hope.
He told them of world-renowned Israel-born and Canada-trained surgeon Dr Dror Paley, who helped patients with the same complex condition.
Tibial hemimelia manifests as a shortened leg with knee and ankle deformities. In Mnqobi’s case, both legs had turned inwards.
Through numerous fundraising initiatives, donations from Good Samaritans, negotiations with their medical aid and the Paley Institute itself, the young couple were able to raise enough money to at least have their child begin his surgical journey.
Following initial operations performed by Paley to rebuild both his legs late last year, Mnqobi was fitted with external fixators to elongate and support his tibias.
“Those days, after the first two surgeries…” says an emotional Nthabiseng, trailing off mid-sentence.
“Just saying it gives me goosebumps because, wow, it was tough.
“It was and is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. When Mnqobi woke up after the surgeries, you can’t imagine what it was like looking at our baby’s poor little legs.
“He’s only two years old and by no means a big child. So, seeing him in that condition, we just had to set our end-goal in our minds, because if we’d fixated on what we saw before us, we would have gone crazy. It’s not an easy road,” she says.
Every day since recovering from the surgeries, Mnqobi has had to go for physiotherapy sessions with the fixators on to slowly learn how to walk.
“We call it [physio] playtime because he gets there and plays in the little toy kitchen. That’s where he learns how to stand up. He fries his toy eggs there and thinks he’s at play, but what we’re really teaching him is how to walk and use his legs.”
Mnqobi’s next surgery is scheduled for April. This is when the fixators will be removed.
“We had three months of lengthening his bones because the tibias were short. However, we were fortunate that he had them at all, so that lengthening them was possible. It’s been really hectic. Every day I had to turn the metal rods on both sides of the external fixators.
“Sometimes I had to do it in stages because it’s a fragile process and you have to make sure that you get it right and on the dot,” she explains.
If all goes well, the family could be back on South African soil by June. By then, says Nthabiseng, Mnqobi could be walking around just like his twin brother Philasande.
“God has been good to my family, but it’s been an emotional roller coaster. We’re still here and very grateful that the end result is what it is. But it’s a journey – more than anything, it’s a journey,” she says.
“Despite the ordeal, I’d still 100% recommend it to any mother or father who’s been offered amputation as the only solution for their child.
“It’s hard looking back at all we’ve gone through, but it’s also good because it’s a reminder of how strong and capable one can be, when one has to be.”