Ncobile has defied odds

Namhla Tshisela

Namhla Tshisela

Little Ncobile Ngomane lives up to her name, which means "triumphant" in siSwati.

At only nine weeks, Ncobile has "overcome three holes in her heart". She was born with this medical condition, known as multiple ventricular septal defect.

She was born in White River, Mpumalanga, and seemed normal and healthy at birth.

"I didn't suspect there was anything wrong with her. She looked so perfect," said her mother Maureen Banda.

Banda found out about her baby's heart defect only two weeks ago when she visited her mother, Theresa, in Johannesburg.

A nurse at a clinic where she went for vaccinations noticed that Ncobile was breathing too fast. The nurse alerted a doctor.

Ncobile was referred to Sunninghill Hospital, Sandton, where her condition was diagnosed and revealed to her shocked mother.

Her lungs were flooded with blood and her body used most of its energy for breathing and keeping her alive. The condition also stunted Ncobile's growth.

"We were told that her heart was failing and that she needed an operation immediately," she said.

Last week, Ncobile underwent an operation at the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre at Sunninghill Hospital.

The first phase of the procedure was headed by cardiothoracic surgeons Hendrik Mamorare and Robin Kinsley.

They narrowed the artery that feeds the lungs with blood, using a material called decron (similar to tape), to control blood flow.

This minimised the "feeling of suffocation or drowning" that came with the condition, explained Mamorare.

"She'll thrive now," though she would need another operation when she is two or three years old to close all the holes in her heart, said Kinsley.

Heart defects develop during pregnancy and are the most common cause of infant mortality. Though these anomalies can usually be detected before birth, they often go unnoticed, but can be corrected soon after birth.

The paediatric cardiac centre opened in 2003 and is the largest of its kind in Africa. Doctors there perform more than 500 operations a year on children from all over the continent.

Fewer than 20percent of South African children with congenital heart defects and less than 1percent of children throughout Africa receive treatment at Sunninghill.

"The rest die," says a hospital spokesman.

At an average cost of R200000 each, most of the cases transferred to the centre cannot afford the treatment.

"There are numerous types of congenital heart defects and most can be corrected. We would prefer to treat at least half of the cases for free," said Kinsley.

The unit relies on private sponsors and fund-raising initiatives, such as the Priceless Moments charity auction, to aid those who cannot afford the costs.

The campaign was launched last month and allowed thousands of people all over the world to bid for moments with local and international celebrities such as Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Richard Branson and Samuel L Jackson.

The campaign raised R1,1million. Half the money went to the cardiac unit and the rest was divided between the Choc Childhood Cancer Foundation, the South African Red Cross Society, Cotlands, the Reach for a Dream Foundation, the Ithemba Trust and St Mary's Hospital.

A week after the surgery, Banda says her daughter seems healthier. Her breathing and heart rate have normalised. She has more energy and the spark has returned to her eyes.

"I needed proof that she was going to make it. I couldn't imagine what losing my first child would have been like.

"I am delighted every time she finishes her bottle and cries because she couldn't do that before," said Banda.

Ncobile's grandmother, Theresa Banda is proud of her fighting spirit.

"She has overcome all the odds against her," she said.