Celebrating the fighting spirit

Friday is World Prematurity Day, celebrating the survival, the fighting spirit and the resilience of the planet’s tiniest human beings, but also a day to remember those who support and assist their families. Health writer Estelle Ellis caught up with two of the exceptional little fighters.


Baby Elijah a big blessing in a small body
Dad Ryan Plaatjies with mother Kelly Whitebooi and Elijah Whitebooi, now four months old.
Picture: Eugene Coetzee

The sound of her son’s heartbeat in the womb after she had developed complications during her pregnancy, was the best sound in the world for Kelly Whitebooi.

Two years ago, a devastated Whitebooi – who had already lived through the trauma of two stillborn babies –watched heartbroken as her micro-preemie daughter died after a momentous struggle. But four months ago, Elijah Whitebooi was born at 28 weeks, weighing just over 700g.

This week, recounting her harrowing pregnancy and her son’s incredible survival, Whitebooi, of Central, said: “God has granted me a time of joy.” Elijah will turn five months on November 26 and his pediatrician, Dr Greg Boden, says he is growing well.

After her baby girl died, Whitebooi underwent tests that found she had a rare condition called antiphospholipid syndrome, which makes the blood clot and the placenta die. She did not want to get pregnant again, but her contraception failed and soon she found out she was pregnant with Elijah.

“I went for my 3D scan at 22 weeks and everything was fine. When I went to the doctor at 23 weeks everything was wrong.

“For me, being pregnant started feeling like I was in a bad relationship. You know the guy is going to hurt you, but you keep on hoping,” she said.

Whitebooi said she had tried to carry on with life but when her obstetrician, Dr Daniel Truter, called and asked her to see him the very next day, she was beside herself.

Truter said he had consulted with Dr Pieter Marais, who had successfully used Viagra to treat a woman with the same condition. He suggested it to Whitebooi.

“The use of Sildenafil [Viagra] for her condition was still experimental. “I told her even if it all went wrong, we must know that we fought for the baby, ” Truter said.

Whitebooi said the first few days she was in hospital had been an extremely anxious time for her.

“The nurses were wonderful. They have a small Doppler machine [to listen to foetal heart rate] and as soon as I got anxious they would let me listen to his heart,” she said.

“It was the best sound in the world. Every single time I was so relieved.”

At 28 weeks, Truter told her that they had taken Elijah as far along as they could and she should have a C-section.

“When Dr [Greg] Boden handed me my boy, he gave a little cry and I just knew it was going to be okay,” Whitebooi’s fiance Ryan Plaatjies said.

Plaatjies had named his son a few days before.

For the next three days, while Whitebooi – battling deep emotions – couldn’t bear to see her child, Plaatjies spent the time with his newborn, taking pictures to show his mom.

“I was in a depression,” Whitebooi said. “I only saw him three days later. He looked just like his sister.

“At first,” Whitebooi said, “we didn’t want to get too attached to him. But it was impossible.”

Elijah now weighs 3.1kg. Whitebooi said: “Elijah is my future, my joy and my blessing.

“I am also so very grateful for his dad. I could not ask for a better father for my boy.”


Baby Arno a tiny champion
Dr Greg Boden, Marelize Erasmus and baby Arno at Netcare Greenacres Hospital.
Picture: Werner Hills

The wall next to baby Arno Erasmus’s incubator is covered in handwritten Bible verses, silently cheering on the tiny champion of preemie-babies born at 24 weeks.

Delivered in Netcare Greenacres ’ neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), baby Arno is now two months old, but he shouldn’t have even been born yet.

Sister Anita van Wyk, who is in charge of the unit, said they did not normally have such little patients.

“His eyes were still fused. We decided to keep him here because he had a good weight when he was born.”

This week, baby Arno’s nurses dressed him in a special, limited edition onesie for his picture.

“I am very proud of him,” his mom Marelize Erasmus said.

Paediatrician and neonatologist Dr Greg Boden, who has been looking after baby Arno since his birth, said while there were no specific statistics, female micro-preemies tend to do better than males.

Erasmus, 27, has been in hospital for the past 5½ months. She also has a baby girl of 16 months whom she has only seen at weekends.

Her husband – also Arno – farms near Somerset East.

Erasmus said she had been diagnosed with placenta previa, a condition where the placenta lies low in the uterus and covers the cervix. Sixteen weeks into her pregnancy, she was readmitted to hospital after her cervix opened and had to be stitched.

“I was in hospital for eight weeks when he was born. The doctors think he kicked open the stitch and then my waters broke.”

Baby Arno weighed 980g.

“When he was born, doctors said we must take it hour by hour, ” she said.

“He was given medicine for his lungs. On the third day, the potassium level in his blood was very high. The doctor was very worried. He received a blood transfusion and that helped.”

Baby Arno also suffered a brain bleed and an infection in his intestines. He now weighs 1.42kg.

“I am hoping that we can go home for Christmas. His original due date was December 21 so hopefully he will then be discharged , ” Erasmus said.

“He is a real little fighter. He was named after his dad, Johannes Arnoldus Erasmus. It is also the names of his grandfather and his great-grandfather.

“His dad is really proud of him. We were lucky that his dad is such a big guy – that meant he had a good weight even though he was born so early.”

Erasmus said the nurses and staff at the NICU felt like her family already.

“They are so helpful and lovely.” She said it was the grace of God that had carried them through so far.

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