Meet 7-year-old Peet Pretorius: the boy who stole our hearts

7-year-old Peet Pretorius beaming in the arms of Springbok captain Siya Kolisi on Friday.
7-year-old Peet Pretorius beaming in the arms of Springbok captain Siya Kolisi on Friday.

Saturday’s Springbok match was one of those rare occasions when everything else took a back seat, and the nation came together to watch the Boks do their best. Sitting at a very busy Waterfront restaurant, first we saw Kolisi run out onto the field with this proud boy in his arms, the moment clearly very big for both.

Siya Kolisi and Peet Pretorius Reach for a Dream

Next, we watched all the scurrying waiters come to a complete standstill and belt out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika at full volume. What a moment that was! And there was Peet on the field, standing next to Kolisi while Tendai Mtawarira (Beast) had his two small kids with him too.

“Peet is absolutely crazy about rugby,” says the 7-year-old’s mom, Maryke Pretorius. “He’s always been the biggest Cheetahs fan… he ranks them almost higher than the Boks!” she grins. “But Siya left a very big impression on him. He still can’t stop talking about the gawe oom [kind uncle]. He was so overwhelmed by it all. We all were!”

Yes, we all were. After seeing how one boy’s dream came true in the arms of South Africa’s first black Bok captain, a dad himself, we wanted to know all about this beautiful boy and his story. Yolanda Maartens Brown from Reach for a Dream connected the dots for us.

“Are you busy on the 16th?”

I call Maryke, a lovely, warm-hearted woman at her home in the small Free State town of Odendaalsrus, not too far from Welkom. She was so sick the day before that she could hardly lift her head, but when we speak she sounds cheerful, almost as if it’s not the first time she’s put aside her own discomfort for the benefit of others.

So how did this young boy from a sleepy mining town end up on the pitch with Siya Kolisi on Saturday?

“It was earlier this month when the wonderful Sandra Basson from Reach for a Dream called us up and asked, ‘Are you busy on the 16th?’ The Springboks want Boeta to run onto the field with them.’ I was so shocked, she must have thought we got cut off!” Maryke laughs.

“They wanted us to go through on the Friday so Boeta could watch them practise, and Siya wanted to meet him.

“We all love rugby and Reach for a Dream wanted to buy ouboet Anton a bus ticket so we could all be there on Saturday! He’s doing matric in Parys and staying with his ouma and oupa. I was in tears. I told Sandra these were tears of joy. Really, those people go out of their way. It’s been hard on Anton too, you know? We managed to get a lift for him and we were all there.”

I hear turtledoves in the background, and Maryke chuckles. “It’s a very peaceful area, there’s nothing to scare away the birds here.” For a moment I wish I was sitting with her in person on this crisp winter’s morning.

Dad Peet is a farm manager, busy harvesting mielies on a nearby farm. “Perhaps one day we’ll have a small plasie [farm] we can call our own,” she smiles. But first they need to battle through medical bills.

The journey with cancer

Peet was diagnosed with cancer on 6 April 2017. “He started chemotherapy on the very same day, and the two of us spent the next three months in hospital in Bloemfontein,” she recalls.

“We were told Peet would need three years of treatment, but after the first month, he was in remission. There were no cancer cells left in his body! Truly wonderful. The chemo continued for another two months to ensure he really was clean.”

His sister Chané, who was 10 at the time, had a hard time with mom being away for such a long period. “Sussie really suffered. You know, I’m a huismamma [stay-at-home mom], I’m involved with all her activities at school. It was really hard for her. But we got a psychologist at school to help her through this period and she’s doing a lot better now.”

The stem-cell transplant

Peet was cancer-free, but the doctors picked up the Philadelphia chromosome in his DNA, which would make any new cancer cells grow twice as fast. They were told he needed a bone marrow transplant at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town.

“I wasn’t keen at all, I’ll admit,” she says. “I even made a kind of a ‘deal’ with God! I said okay that’s fine, we’ll go to Cape Town… if there’s a 100% bone marrow donor match, knowing full well that the chances were very slim.

“Would you believe it: they tested Chané’s blood – and she was a 100% match! Daar’s hy! The doctors told us it just doesn’t happen, they usually see a 70% match at the very best.”

And so Peet had a bone-marrow transplant on 30 August 2017, merely a month after he completed his three-month course of chemotherapy.

“Boeta is always positive, with a smile on his face. Doesn’t matter how ill he is. He is such a brave boy, nothing gets him down,” smiles Maryke.

And was it easy on Chané being the donor?  “Sjoe. If you had to ask her now, she’d say she would do it again for Peet. But the poor child had to be so brave. We initially didn’t even know what to expect: perhaps they had to cut through her bones to get to the bone marrow! But none of that was necessary, they could harvest the necessary stem cells from her blood. But Sussie had never been in hospitals, and here she was, in theatres, hooked up to tubes, watching them take 12 vials of blood, it was all so unknown and terrifying.

“At one point the nurses rushed out and asked me to come in and calm Sussie down, she was petrified and wanted to pull out the tubes! It was so hard dealing with this on our own. Dad was with Peet at Groote Schuur, and we were at the Red Cross, where they started the process before transporting her per ambulance to Groote Schuur.

“For 6 hours she was hooked up to this stem-cell separator machine that took blood, separated the stem cells needed and pumped the rest of the blood back.

"They needed 12 million stem cells, but Sussie gave them 24 million! Peet has already taken on Chané’s blood type – he used to be A-negative, and now he is A-positive. He even has her DNA now!”

Peet Pretorius Reach for Dream

Peet with hooker Schalk Brits.

A moment with God

But being cancer-free and having a new set of DNA haven’t meant Peet is completely healthy yet.

“A week after his transplant, he became very, very sick again and was diagnosed with GVHD (Graft vs Host Disease). He recovered, but contracted it again at the start of April this year. 

Daddy was with him at the hospital, he so wanted his daddy to be with him,” Maryke recalls. “I’d actually said to Peet, ‘If Boeta isn’t coming home, then I’m not either.’”

“One morning, just before Chané and I were about to leave to visit them at hospital, I took my cup of coffee and sat down on the old tree trunk outside.

“And I asked the Lord, ‘Here, how much more?’”

Maryke falls silent for a moment. “I know this sounds crazy, but suddenly I saw tiny silver stars, like sparkles, and they landed on my skin. I watched them disappear, astonished, and then I was awash with a warmth, an incredible peace...

“I called Peet and said I had an affirmation, Boeta was going to be okay. Maybe not smooth-sailing, you know? But he was coming home.”

“We’re on this train…”

“Boetie is still not allowed to go to school with his weak immune system, but his teacher, Juffrou Santjie Odendaal, visits him twice a week – at her expense, her time – to come and help and assess him. She’s a nugget of gold here on this earth.

“We still need to drive the 200km to Bloemfontein for blood tests every Tuesday: they need to test Boetie’s liver and kidney function, and the levels of the immunosuppressant Cyclosporin in his blood once a week. We leave at 6am and return at 4pm.

“We have to buy all his medication from the pharmacy. We don’t have medical aid but because my husband earns a salary, we have to pay the hospital bills. It was R150k but we’ve managed to pay off R50k so far. The meds, the bills, the petrol. We have a long road ahead, it’s not easy.

“But out of this story have come so many more wonderful things than bad things. Even marriages have been touched for the better. Really.

“And Yolanda and Sandra from Reach for a Dream, the most wonderful people! I wish I had words to express our gratitude. I’ve told them, I literally have no words. They really are amazing people.”  

It was while Peet was undergoing chemo that Reach for a Dream visited Peet in hospital for the first time. “They brought him presents, and in April this year they already made his dream come true: they flew us all to Durban for the long weekend and they paid for everything: travel, accommodation, food, entrance, the works! I cannot tell you how wonderful they have been to us.”

Maryke continues, “The hospital personnel have been exceptional too. You won’t find better people on earth. At Universitas, Red Cross, Groote Schuur. They do it for the right reason, not for the money. And not just the doctors, the staff right through.”

On Sunday, after the match, Peet got a 40-degree fever. But tests confirmed that his infection count was fine, so he got sent home with antibiotics.

“My husband put it so well," she laughs. "He said, ‘On that day in April last year, we got onto a train. We’re not at our destination yet, we’re still riding that train...’

Maryke pauses again.

“My child is still here, that’s all that matters.”

If you're interested, you can reach out to Reach for a Dream to find out how you can help support the wonderful work they do or help to support the Pretorius family.

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