Mienke Mulder’s approaching second birthday will be a bittersweet milestone for her parents.
As she did on Christmas day, 27-year-old Verna Mulder will be watching her youngest child’s little face on 31 January when they celebrate Mienke’s second birthday.
Verna’s greatest wish is that Mienke will show the same excitement about her birthday as her older sister, Zamoné, who turns three just two days later. But Verna knows her youngest, unlike her sister, won’t be able to blow out her own candles.
The sad reality is Mienke probably won’t even realise it’s her birthday. On Christmas day Verna and her husband, Ryno, 31, had to watch, heartbroken, as Mienke didn’t show any reaction to her presents under the tree.
While Zamoné and their eldest sister, Leané, 5, played with their new dolls, pushing them around in toy strollers, Mienke just sat in her own stroller. She’s still unable to speak, sit up or even eat on her own.
In August 2017 Mienke choked on milk at her daycare in Mbombela, Mpumalanga. Her brain was starved of oxygen, leaving her blind. She was recently diagnosed with severe cerebral atrophy, which means her brain cells are deteriorating.
The family now live in Benoni, Gauteng. In November Mienke underwent a four-hour operation in a Gauteng hospital to lengthen the ligaments in her legs. Though successful, the operation has caused other problems.
"We’d hoped it would be easier to change her nappies but her legs still cross over each other. Sometimes it feels as if fixing one thing just causes something else to go wrong," Verna says, struggling not to sound despondent.
Despite not yet being two, Mienke has to wear clothes for four- to five-year-olds because she’s growing so fast. Doctors are still unable to establish why this is happening and also why she suffers daily seizures.
But there’s hope. In February her parents will take Mienke to India for neurotherapy and stem-cell treatment.
"You can’t give up hope. Never say never. There’s no telling if it might change. That’s why we’re continuing with treatment. We’ll do anything to help her have a normal life," Verna says.
"There are small improvements, such as when she turns her head, but no big changes. Of course we get sad sometimes. Our expectations might’ve been too great. It’s only human."
Verna and Ryno have almost raised enough money for the trip to India.
This year, they’ll have to continue their fundraising efforts for the follow-up visits – they want to take Mienke for a second treatment later in the year. Each treatment will cost around R300 000.
The Facebook page her parents set up for her, Please Pray for Mienke, has more than 60 000 members.
"We’ve never given up hope and while there’s treatment available, we’ll get it for her. But the battle isn’t without heartache."