When doctors were planning the first paediatric stemcell transplant in the Eastern Cape, they faced a huge problem. While patient Tashnay Memphies, 6, and her mother, Natasha, were confined to an isolation room at the Port Elizabeth Provincial Hospital they would not be able to eat hospital food.
It was here that Jenny Cape, a former chef and now volunteer counsellor at the hospital’s paediatric oncology unit, stepped in.
“I said, well, I used to cook for a living. I will do it,” Cape said.
Following guidelines from a dietician, Cape sterilised her kitchen several times and started cooking the 180 meals Tashnay and her mom would need.
“It was an absolute privilege to do it,” Cape said.
Tashnay, of Schauderville, was diagnosed with leukaemia, which did not respond well to chemotherapy.
A bone marrow transplant was her only option and doctors were fast running out of time.
When the head of the department of paediatric oncology, Dr Johani Vermeulen, discovered that Tashnay’s brother Jermaine, 10, was a perfect match for her, they decided they would attempt the first stemcell transplant on a child in the Eastern Cape.
As Tashnay’s immune system had to be destroyed completely by radiotherapy before the transplant, she had to be kept in isolation for a month to give her new bone marrow time to graft.
During that month Cape painstakingly sterilised her kitchen, utensils, cutting boards, pots and pans every time she cooked.
“I was so careful because I knew even the smallest mistake could cost Tashnay her life,” she said.
It was not only the germs that would be a problem – it also turned out Tashnay was not too fond of vegetables.
“I hid grated vegetables in dishes like spaghetti bolognaise. And then this precious child thanked me for making the best bolognaise she had ever had,” Cape said.
“Tashnay is such a darling. I was one of the few people who were allowed into her isolation room.”
Cape paid special tribute to Vermeulen and her colleague, Dr Elmarie Mathews-Walton.
“I pray for them every day. They work in a ward where the challenges are huge.”
She said the most special moment for her was a little over a week ago when Tashnay was still in isolation.
Vermeulen came into the room.
“Johani came in with this little piece of paper,” Cape said.
“She said to Tashnay ‘I promised I will come tell you your results’. I just took one look at Johani’s face and I knew. I wanted to sing and dance . . . I was so excited.”
Vermeulen said Tashnay had picked up 2kg while she was in isolation.
She said Cape had done an amazing job to keep the whole team, Tashnay and her mom calm, focused and looking at God for strength.
“She is a huge blessing to the unit.”