Elken’s right leg was amputated below the knee – but he’s not letting that slow him down.
Like most two-year-olds he’s a ball of energy, flying across the monkey bars, kicking his ball around, tearing around the garden – in fact, it makes you tired just looking at him. Unlike most kids though, Elken Mynhardt has a prosthetic leg, a bright blue artificial limb complete with a little foot the same size as his left one.
Elken is so adept at getting around you barely notice his right leg doesn’t move quite the same as his left. For the little boy it’s just life – the only normal he’s ever known. He was born without a fibula and an ankle in his right leg, the result of fibular hemimelia – the same congenital condition with which disgraced Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was born.
“Sometimes people ask me what happened to Elken and I’ll tell them,” his mom, Sumé Potgieter (22), says, chatting to us at a restaurant in her hometown of Polokwane in Limpopo.When her little boy’s friends ask about it, she just tells them “his leg is gone and he has a new one now”. As for Elken, he couldn’t be prouder of his artificial limb.
“He still doesn’t understand that he’s different to other kids. I’ll have to explain it to him one day.” But right now, he’s a happy, carefree little boy, exploring the world around him. Sumé had no warning that there was any problem with her baby when she was pregnant – but as soon as Elken was born on 26 March 2017 and she glanced down at him, her heart stopped.
“I got such a fright,” she says. “Initially I thought he was missing both legs but then I realised only one had been affected. Later that day orthopaedic surgeon Dr Iwan Scott told the young mom about her son’s condition, and at first she was distraught. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why did this have to happen to me? What did I do wrong’.”
Scott explained she had the option of lengthening Elken’s leg but it would entail annual operations until he stopped growing at the age of about 18. The alternative was to amputate the leg below the knee – and after extensive consultations with the doctor, she decided on that option.
The surgery was performed on 3 October 2017, when Elken was just older than six months. Sumé was beside herself with worry when her baby was in theatre. “It was terrifying – it felt as if it took them the whole day. Time stood still. I was stressing so much.” After the surgery Elken was taken to a recovery room and Sumé’s heart broke when she heard him crying.
She instantly wondered whether she’d done the right thing and continued to struggle with the thought for a while. But today she’s completely at peace with the decision. “I don’t regret my choice at all. My child would’ve been in so much pain if he’d had to have surgery every year.
And he wouldn’t be able to play and have fun as much as he does now,” she says, watching Elken make a beeline for the monkey bars in the restaurant’s play area. Sumé demonstrates how the prosthetic works. First, she unties the leg, then rolls down the sock to which the limb attaches.
While she’s busy, Elken holds up his prosthetic leg with both hands for everyone to see. He wears the limb most of the day, Sumé says, and removes it only when he goes to bed or has a bath. “Sometimes, but not that often, he just doesn’t feel like wearing it. It bothers him every now and then.
“At times his stump gets sore where it connects with the prosthetic because the tissue there is soft and there’s a lot of pressure on it,” she adds. But as soon as he wants to do something he can’t do without his limb he’ll yell, “Mommy – leg!” She smiles, looking at her son’s unique way of running.
“I don’t know why – maybe for balance – but he swings his arms wildly when he runs.” At first he kept his right leg straight when walking but he soon realised he could bend it and now he walks and runs more like his friends. When he’s not wearing the prosthetic, he’ll crawl around, and he’s also practising standing on one leg.
“His balance is good,” Sumé says proudly. “And he’s really strong. Other kids will use their hands to lift themselves off the ground when they want to get up but Elken puts his prosthesis down and heaves himself up without using his hands.” He’ll need a new prosthesis every six months as he’s growing so fast.
His leg comes courtesy of Jumping Kids in Pretoria, a nonprofit organisation that supplies children with artificial limbs. So far, it’s been necessary to change only the socks to which the prosthesis is attached at the thigh. When we meet he’s due for his next appointment to find out whether he needs his first replacement prosthesis.
Elken interrupts the discussion to show his mom the gift his grandma Petro Minnaar bought him. “Mommy, look!” he says, holding out a red-and-yellow bouncy ball – and he’s off again, chasing around after the new toy. Sumé works full time as a clerk at a company in Phalaborwa, so Elken is in a crèche during the day.
Sumé and Elken’s dad, Charl Mynhardt, a manager at a building supply company, broke off their engagement in February last year but the little boy sees his dad every second weekend. “My mom is my right hand, my rock,” Sumé says. “She helps me with everything.”
Right now Petro is keeping a close watch over her grand- son, who’s back on the monkey bars. Sumé picks him up and gives him a hug. “My monkey,” she says. “No,” he says. “I’m Elken!” She wanted to call him Liam when he was born, Sumé says, but a relative suggested Elken.
“We looked it up and liked it immediately – it’s Hebrew for ‘God created’. It was perfect for him.” She smiles as Elken runs off, arms flailing wildly. “Nothing gets him down,” she says. “He continues to surprise me more and more each day.”
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