We wept over our baby's swollen body: parents' grief as 7-week-old dies of Covid

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Milané’s birth fulfilled Christo Grobler and Adela Malan’s greatest wish – to become parents. They say her death comes as another deep blow to the family. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi)
Milané’s birth fulfilled Christo Grobler and Adela Malan’s greatest wish – to become parents. They say her death comes as another deep blow to the family. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi)

A pink babysuit is neatly folded in her cupboard, ready to be worn, and a plush toy elephant sits waiting to be snuggled. On the wall, emblazoned in golden letters, is a name: Milané. 

But there are no contented gurgles or hungry cries of a baby demanding to be fed or any of the usual chaos that comes with having a newborn in the house. Instead, Adela Malan and Christo Grobler’s home in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, is strangely silent.

Adela (24) anxiously clutches her phone as if she’s expecting someone to call and tell her it’s all been a big mistake. 

“I wake up in the middle of the night wondering where my child is; expecting a call from the hospital,” she says.

But she knows that call will never come because, at just seven weeks old, Milané became one of South Africa’s youngest Covid casualties.

Adela still can’t get over how fast it happened. “It was a roller coaster,” she says.

Adela hadn’t thought it possible for babies to con
Adela hadn’t thought it possible for babies to contract Covid so she was stunned when her daughter tested positive. (PHOTO: Facebook/ Adela Malan)

Adela needed an emergency C-section four weeks early but she wasn’t particularly concerned. As a type 1 diabetic, she knew the babies of moms who use insulin are often larger than other babies.

In keeping with hospital protocol, she and Christo (35) were tested for Covid the day before the C-section. 

Just hours before the operation they got the results and were stunned to discover they were both positive. Adela had a bit of a runny nose, which she’d thought was a cold, while Christo showed no symptoms at all. 

But Covid or not, the baby had to be delivered and on Tuesday 13 July, Milané was born weighing a robust 4,6kg. “She was perfect. She wasn’t sick,” Adela says.

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They were relieved that she didn’t have Covid but it broke their hearts that they couldn’t visit while she remained in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. “For nine days I couldn’t even hold my child,” Adela says. “I wondered if she even knew who I was.”

By the time they were able to take her home Adela couldn’t breastfeed because Milané was already used to a bottle. “I really wanted to. I wanted to form that bond. “But after the third day at home, as she was sleeping peacefully in my arms, I knew: this is my child.”

She goes quiet, and Christo continues the story. 

Christo sharing a special moment with Milané.
Christo sharing a special moment with Milané. (PHOTO: Facebook/ Adela Malan)

Everything was going well – until about a month after her birth when they noticed Milané was sleeping longer than usual.

That same day she was rushed to hospital and they got the bad news: Milané had Covid. Just more than a week later she had to be put on a ventilator after one of her lungs collapsed. 

'For nine days I couldn’t even hold my child'

Adela tears up as she recalls that day. “That afternoon was the last time her little blue eyes were open.”

This loss comes as another deep blow to the family. Soon after they got together in 2018, Adela fell preg-nant but because of her diabetes there were complications that resulted in their first child, Christiaan, being stillborn at 6½ months.

READ MORE | MY STORY | I’m only 25 but Covid has left me a widow and a single mom of two tiny children

But they had dreams of growing their family and got engaged in 2019, then had to postpone their wedding last year because of the pandemic.

They were overjoyed to discover Adela was pregnant in December last year. Milané’s name – miracle in Hebrew – came to her in a dream, Adela says. “She was the light in all this darkness. And my pregnancy was a breeze.” 

The virus robbed them of the chance to experience the joy of their baby’s birth, the couple say.“Christo wasn’t allowed into theatre when Milané was born. He wasn’t there to cut the cord. We don’t have those very first baby pictures.”

For nine days they had to be content with seeing her only in the videos and photos that nurses were able to send. Adela was allowed to visit her just once but had to be in full PPE.

But when they finally brought her home there was no end to their joy. “I helped feed and wind her,” Christo says.

Then that fateful Sunday arrived.

Adela looks through her daughter’s cupboard for th
Adela looks through her daughter’s cupboard for the first time since her death. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi)

When Milané woke up, she seemed listless and wouldn’t take her bottle. They took her to a clinic. By the time they arrived her lips were blue and the nurse took one look at her and called an ambulance.

Adela hadn’t thought it possible for babies to contract Covid so she was stunned when her daughter tested positive. She and Christo still can’t figure out how she got it.

Milané was given oxygen and her lungs were cleared of phlegm. Initially she responded well to treatment but a week later she was still in hospital and her oxygen levels were plummeting. 

“The doctor told us Milané wouldn’t survive the next 24 hours,” Adela recalls. But the little girl kept fighting. 

Adela and Christo were allowed only five minutes at a time with their baby. Adela even slept in her clothes just in case the hospital called for her to come through. 

They were relieved when Milané stabilised a few days later and Christo even returned to work. 

But on 31 August at 8am, Adela got the call she’d been dreading. Milané was losing the battle. Her blood pressure was dropping and her organs were failing.

Adela shows Milané’s unworn superhero outfits she’
Adela shows Milané’s unworn superhero outfits she’ll never get to enjoy. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi)

Adela starts weeping as she recalls how she and Christo prayed over their baby’s badly swollen body. 

“I just kept thinking, ‘Why, Lord? Why take a second child from me?’ ”

Now the young couple are alone in their home, with only Milané’s unworn baby clothes and their heartache and longing.

YOU could independently verify that Milané had no underlying conditions at the time she was admitted to Life Midmed Hospital in Middelburg – only Covid-19. An X-ray showed she had pneumonia and the cause of death was indicated as organ failure – the main cause of death in adults with Covid.

The covid risk for babies

Babies can be infected with Covid- 19 by any carrier, even if the person is asymptomatic, says Dr Shakti Pillay, a neonatal specialist at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. 

But serious Covid is rare in infants. “If a baby becomes very ill, it’s likely to be due to another cause rather than the coronavirus itself,” she says.

“Many babies with Covid will have mild signs or will show no signs of illness. Most babies will recover fully.

“Even though infected babies may pass on the virus to others, this risk is very low with excellent infection-control practices.” 

She emphasises that parents should do everything possible to avoid getting sick – such as wearing masks and making sure they sanitise often. 

"Parents need to avoid anyone who’s coughing or sneezing. Moms who have a cough need to wear a mask while they are breastfeeding or handling a breast pump,” Pillay adds. 

Babies with symptoms such as coughing or fever or who are experiencing difficulty breathing need urgent medical attention.

Dr Andrew Redfern, a paediatrician at Tygerberg Hospital, confirms that Covid is extremely rare in babies, but we can’t ignore the possibility of infection.

“I don’t think paediatricians are putting enough emphasis on the message that you’re protecting your children when you as a parent are vaccinated.” 

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