From the archives | Mother of baby who died at Eastern Cape creche – 'I unwrapped her and her body was already cold'

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Baby Ezam Thabeng died under mysterious circumstances at an East London daycare centre.
Baby Ezam Thabeng died under mysterious circumstances at an East London daycare centre.

She couldn't believe that her little baby was gone. She was so shocked that when she heard the news, she cradled her infant close and tried to breastfeed her in the hopes that she would wake up. 

But she didn't. The East London mom is still reeling after the death of her infant at a creche. 

“I took out my breast, sprayed the milk out and put it in her mouth, but she did not latch or suckle.”

A heartbroken Mildred Thabeng, whose daughter Ezam recently died at daycare, tells us. Ezam was one of two infants who died at the same daycare centre, 10 minutes apart.

Mildred and her partner Khanya Makabane speak to Drum a little over a week after their second-born child died under mysterious and inexplicable circumstances.

Neither of them can wrap their heads around what happened. They have not begun to deal with their loss at all.

Ezam was five months old and when she was dropped at Happiness and Excellence Daycare Centre in Southernwood on that Tuesday morning, her parents never imagined that it would be the last time they saw her alive.

She was dropped off at school at 8 am and her mother was due to fetch her at 5 pm.

“Around 4:20 pm I got a call from a doctor who said they were at Frere Hospital and they wanted to confirm that I was Ezam’s mother. Once I confirmed, the doctor told me to rush to the hospital because it was urgent.

“During that call, I never imagined that my daughter had died. The worst-case scenario I thought of was that she had been burnt with hot water. When I called the school on the way to the hospital, they did not give me any straight answers,” she says.

When they arrived at the hospital, the couple learnt that their daughter had died.

They met the school principal there.

“I could not believe it. I pushed past the doctor and opened the curtain. I saw her body wrapped in a blanket that did not belong to her on the hospital bed. I unwrapped her, she was cold. She looked like she had been gone for a while. It looked like she had poop on her bum and snort on her face. I took out my breast, sprayed the milk out and put it in her mouth, but she did not latch or suckle. I still cannot believe my baby is gone.”

Mildred says they tried to get information from the principal, instead of answering the grieving parents, she kept saying “oh God, why me?” and she fainted.

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Eastern Cape provincial health head of department Dr Rolene Wagner says the children were declared dead on arrival.

"Yes, postmortems have been undertaken. The causes of death cannot be confirmed as yet, because various tests are being conducted with the laboratory that is still awaited. The results of those tests will be considered the determining cause of death in each case," Dr Wagner says.

Khanya says they cannot even understand why the school did not notify them that their daughter was sick.

“They did not even call an ambulance,” he says. “They requested a Bolt, waited for however many minutes for it to arrive and they went straight to the hospital nezidumbu zabantwana bethu (with our children’s bodies). Even while waiting for the taxi, still they did not phone us.

“We spoke to the family of the other baby that died. He was six months old and the school did not phone them either. They were also called by the hospital.” Mildred says according to her culture, she had to fetch her daughter’s spirit where she died.

“I went to the school the day after she died at 7 am and it was business as usual. It was like nothing had happened. I had to move other children to get to where my child had slept. I called on my ancestors to carry her spirit and I left, but everything was carrying on as normal,” she says.

Khanya says he has never experienced anything like this.

“I am a grown man, I have experienced loss from having had people that I love die. I do not even have parents anymore but hey, this is a pain like no other. I do not even know how to feel,” he says.

Baby Ezam had only been at the daycare for three weeks and Khanya says the day she died was supposed to be her last day there.

“We were going to move into a new flat, with more space and Ezam was going to have a childminder looking after her at home from September. As a parent, you start to question and doubt yourself wondering what you could have done differently to protect and save your child’s life.

“We are not negligent people, sisi. We went to that school after it was recommended to us by someone’s whose child attended the school. We did our due diligence and did a walk around before she started there. We were shown compliance certificates which we now realise are fraudulent. We did not just drop off our child and walk away," he says.

"That woman deceived us. She seemed so nice. We were convinced that our daughter was well-taken care of. Soon after Ezam started there, Milly arrived at the school unannounced in the middle of the school day just to check how things were going and she found our daughter laughing and smiling, in the arms of the teacher. She did another random check on a separate day and again the child was happy, so we were convinced that all was well.”

Ezam was buried on Sunday, 5 September.

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The couple has a six-year-old daughter and says they cannot wallow in their pain because their other child needs them.

“This is an awful experience. On one end I feel like it has paralyzed me, but on the other hand, I just want to fight for justice for my daughter. If this is what she came to do on this earth, for us to shine the light on the care at daycare centres then so be it. We do not wish for this to happen to any other parents.”

They have opened a case with their local police, but they do know the status of the investigation.

“We do not know anything. Even the cause of death is not clear. We were told at the mortuary that the children died 10 minutes apart. The principal did not tell us another child also died that day and did not tell the other family that our Ezam had died that day so we individually looked at it as an isolated incident, but clearly, it wasn’t.

“All we know is that a postmortem was done, and they found some toxins and the same toxins were apparently found in the other child as well. So, then the pathologist ordered a second one to be done, but we do not know the results,” Khanya says.

Early childhood development centres fall under the department of social development and the Eastern Cape’s provincial spokesman Mzukisi Solani says that particular daycare centre is not registered.

“Social Development MEC Siphokazi Lusithi is calling upon law enforcement agencies to expedite their investigations on the circumstances surrounding the death of two toddlers at Happiness and Excellence Day Care Centre in Southernwood, East London.

“The department has also discovered that the centre is not registered. It operates in an unhygienic environment and close proximity to liquor outlets. All this has the potential of compromising the welfare of children. Any person who wishes to operate an early childhood centre is mandated by the Children’s Act to register as a partial care facility in terms of Section 80 of the same Act. Also, the centre must meet the national norms and standards under Section 79 of the same Act,” he says.

Mildred and Khanya will never forget their Ezam. They described their daughter as a very happy child.

"She was not even a problematic baby. Now the only thing that was going on was that she was teething, otherwise, she was her normal happy self. She brought so much love, light and happiness in our family."

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