YOU (South Africa)
New mom’s Covid coma ordeal
After Covid-19, pneumonia, an emergency C-section, a coma and a lung transplant, Mbali can finally bond with her baby
Mbali Mbatha is thrilled to be back home with her husband, Sizwe Mthiyane, and baby Kuhle.
THE last thing she remembered was how very cold it was when she was wheeled into the operating theatre for an emergency C-section. Next thing she woke up, confused and disoriented at being in a hospital room with a nurse trying to hand something to her.
Between those two moments, two months had passed. In that time Mbali Mbatha had given birth to a healthy baby girl – and made history as the first recipient of a Covid-19-related lung transplant. But Mbali (27) knew nothing about it until she was brought out of a medically induced coma in February.
She gave birth on 1 December and remembers how scared she was. “I felt so alone – my husband couldn’t be with me and I didn’t even get to see my baby,” she tells YOU. “I gave birth and passed out.”
Mbali tested positive for Covid-19 and was admitted to hospital on 23 November last year because she was battling to breathe. She had no comorbidities and was a non-smoker and fit, but doctors were concerned about her ability to breathe properly. They advised her to have a C-section when she was 30 weeks into her pregnancy after she contracted pneumonia as a result of Covid-19.
“My obstetrician said they needed to prepare me for a C-section,” she says. If she went into labour while struggling to breathe, the risk would be too high for her and her baby, she was told. “I was scared for my baby’s life. I was given a minute to call my husband, then I was whisked into the operating theatre.”
Sizwe Mthiyane (37) feared for his wife and unborn child, and what was meant to be their first festive season preparing to be new parents became a nerve-racking nightmare for him.
“There was not a day that I did not visit my wife and child,” Sizwe says. “Day in and day out I watched Mbali lying there, showing no sign of recovery.
“It was the worst festive season.”
WHEN businessman and pastor Sizwe first laid eyes on Mbali in June 2016, he knew she was the one. Six months later the lovebirds, who live in Winchester Hills, Johannesburg, wed, and four years later they were thrilled when Mbali conceived.
“It was a planned pregnancy and we had arranged for a natural delivery,” says Mbali, a former office manager. “We couldn’t wait to meet our baby.” Having to have an emergency C-section “was a huge let-down”, says Mbali, who had her heart set on a natural delivery.
When doctors told her their baby need
ed to be delivered, she called her husband. “Sizwe reassured me over the phone that it was important for them to get the baby out safely. But I was alone, scared and devastated,” she recalls.
Tears well up as she remembers that day. “It was so cold. The last thing I remember is giving birth to our baby girl before passing out. I really don’t like to think back to that traumatic time.”
After giving birth Mbali was transferred from Netcare Park Lane Hospital to Netcare Milpark Hospital, which offers specialised treatment for respiratory and cardiac issues. She was put on an artificial lung then put into a medically induced coma. “Mbali recovered from Covid-19 but her lungs did not recover,” explains pulmonologist Dr Paul Williams.
“One of the complications of the virus is that it sometimes damages the lungs extensively. In Mbali’s case the damage was irreversible. Her only chance of survival was to receive a donor lung.”
Meanwhile, healthy baby Kuhle, who’d been in the neonatal intensive care unit, was discharged from the hospital after 36 days and went home to be looked after by her dad and Mbali’s mom, Christine Mbatha.
Remarkably, one week after being placed on the donor waiting list there was a match for Mbali. Sizwe didn’t hesitate to give his consent for the transplant. “I was informed of a possible procedure that was going to take place, but the doctors couldn’t give any guarantees. “It was worth a shot,” he recalls.
“I still remember the first day I saw Mbali in that coma. I said to her, ‘You are the sickest person I have ever seen, but
TMbali’s mom, Christine, and Sizwe took care of Kuhle while Mbali was in hospital. She’s made history as the first recipient of a Covid-19-related lung transplant. you are also going to be the greatest miracle I have ever seen. We will walk out of this hospital together’.”
HE lung transplant operation wasn’t only a success, it was “a remarkable and miraculous situation”, says Dr Williams. “It’s so rare.”
It’s very unusual for recipients to be matched with donors within days, especially as there’s a shortage of organs for transplant.
Mbali’s op saw her become the first Covid-19 patient to become a donor lung recipient in Africa. Only about 100 such ops have been performed worldwide in the past year. And during lockdown many operations were put on hold to reduce the possibility of the coronavirus infecting patients.
Mbali remembers feeling extremely confused when she woke up. A nurse was next to her bed and she was given something to gargle with but she felt weak, which was frustrating for her.
Mbali was overcome with emotion when Sizwe told her about the transplant, knowing that if it hadn’t been for the donor she would have died.
“When I was told I’d been in a coma for two months and received a new lung I couldn’t believe it. I’m so grateful for the care I received from the medical staff and hospital staff.”
Mbali was discharged on 30 March and returned home to hold her baby girl for the first time, a feeling she says was “indescribable”.
Being immobile weakened her body and she’s had to relearn how to do even the simplest tasks.
“I had to learn everything from scratch, and sometimes it was discouraging because it’s simple things I was struggling to do for myself, like clothe my baby and carry her.
“Thankfully my mother and husband have been so helpful.”
Mbali has had physiotherapy to help her learn to breathe independently as she’s spent so much time breathing with the help of machines that her diaphragm has “forgotten” how to function normally, Sizwe explains.
The physiotherapy is also to help her regain control of simple body movements, like sitting up, getting out of bed, walking up stairs and running.
She’s relishing every moment of being a mom. “Being able to bond with my daughter and spend time with her is priceless. I don’t take it for granted.”
The couple urge people to take Covid-19 seriously. They don’t know how Mbali got the virus. Neither Sizwe nor any other relatives contracted it.
Dr Williams, meanwhile, is encouraging more people to become organ donors. “There’s a shortage of organs in South Africa and Covid-19 has only made it worse. The gift of donating your organs is truly priceless.”
Mbali will have to take medication to stop her body rejecting the organ.
“I’m forever a patient now and I’ll be taking medication for as long as I live.”
But it’s a small price to pay to see Kuhle grow up.
‘MY HUSBAND COULDN’T BE WITH WITH ME AND I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO SEE MY BABY’
NOTHING will ever erase the memory: their panic as the river water rose higher and higher, and the devastating moment they realised their threeyear-old son had been swept away and nothing they could do would ever bring him back.
That son would have been 14 now but Belinda and Daniel Black never got to see Eric reaching his teens because of the tragedy that took place on that awful night at a guest farm on the banks of the Great Marico River.
It’s taken more than a decade but the Black family have finally found closure as a result of a recent ruling by the North West high court, which found the owner of the farm can be held responsible for their loss.
“It’s been a very tough 10 years but I think this is a very good outcome for us,”
Daniel tells YOU from their home in Oxfordshire, England, where the family moved two years ago.
The idea that this will help stop people getting away with lawless building and negligence when it comes to guests occupying their premises also helps his family on an emotional level, Daniel says.
Even so the traumatic loss of their son has left deep scars.
“As a father you’re the protector and supposed to be able to help your children through everything,” he says.
“When a disaster of this magnitude happens, you realise how powerless you are – and that feeling of powerlessness has been with me since that day.”
THE Kingfisher Lodge, one of a number of units on the North West guest farm, appears to be the ideal getaway for those seeking the peaceful quiet of the bush.
But the court’s recent judgement found the chalet was built in an unsafe area.
Although the owner of the property, Tino Erasmus, argued that the flood had been a “freak event”, Judge Monare Makoti ruled that he’d been negligent by constructing the chalet below a 100-year flood line and failing to warn the guests of the possibility of heavy flooding.
The cosy two-bedroom cottage on the banks of the Great Marico first caught Daniel’s eye when he was filming an insert for wildlife TV show 50/50 in the area.
The accommodation is so close to the water guests are able to fish from its deck.
“It felt like a good place to go and relax
with the family and just get back to nature,” Daniel says.
The family – with children Eric, Jennifer (then 19 months) and Belinda’s son Darren (then 14) from a previous marriage – arrived at Kingfisher Lodge on 13 December 2010.
“On the night of the 15th it was raining heavily and we had no electricity. So we all went to bed early,” she recalls.
“I woke up at about midnight and as I put my foot off the bed, we were ankle-deep in water already.”
With water gushing through the windows, the couple realised they had to evacuate as quickly as possible.
“Daniel grabbed Eric and I grabbed Jennifer and we made our way to the back door through floating furniture in total darkness,” Belinda says. “As we opened the back door the water just burst in. I got pushed back but the guys got ripped out by the water going past.”
Opening the back door had created a vortex, Daniel explains. “It sucked us out of the house – me with Eric, and Darren as well. That’s where we were all separated, and from there on it was an absolute nightmare. I can’t describe how fast the water was running and how dark it was.”
Daniel was dragged along underwater until he finally managed to grab hold of a tree and pull himself up. He was vomiting water and sat stranded in the tree for four or five hours in the cold darkness, he says.
He becomes emotional as he recalls the moment he realised they’d lost Eric. The water had simply ripped the little boy from his arms.
After opening the back door, Darren was also swept away by the water but ended up in a tree too.
She still doesn’t know how it happened, Belinda says, but she was able to grab onto something by the back door and get onto an outside windowsill with baby Jennifer in her arms. She held onto the burglar bars with her legs.
“I was so scared I was going to lose Jen. Eventually I managed to pull a curtain out from the inside and create a kind of sling [to help anchor us].
“We were in the water for about five hours.”
Inside the chalet, the water rose to just below the ceiling, Belinda says, but it eventually subsided to the point where she could see a door handle.
“I was exhausted and hypothermic. I went inside and managed to climb onto the built-in wardrobe to warm up my daughter and get some rest.”
At dawn, she heard the voices of Darren and a neighbour from one of the other chalets who’d come to help. She hoped their ordeal was over but the worst was yet to come.
“That was when Daniel came walking towards me without our son.”
Daniel will never forget his wife’s first words in that moment: “Where’s Eric?”
“And I didn’t have an answer. I felt like I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Eric’s body was later found on a farm downstream. The tragedy changed them forever. “I became the overprotective breadwinner,” says Daniel, who owns a video production company.
He and Belinda drifted apart and are in the process of splitting up. Their relationship is amicable, they say, and they’ve always put the remaining children first.
The death of their son was a major contributor to the end of their marriage, Belinda says. “I’ve only existed since then . . . I went through a very deep, dark space.”
She says part of the reason they decided to litigate is because they wanted the Erasmus family to break down the chalet to avoid the same thing happening to others.
“When they refused to demolish the unit, we had no choice but to go to court.”
She and Daniel would like to see better safety and prevention measures throughout the hospitality industry.
“Government authorities need to check on these places and hold people accountable,” Belinda says.
None of this will bring her son back or heal her family, she acknowledges.
“But it’ll be worth it if helps save just one life.” S The owner of the guest farm, Tino Erasmus, told YOU he was shocked by the court’s judgement.
“Because we believe it was a freak flood, we don’t think the judgement was fair. In 42 years there hadn’t been flooding near that magnitude and when we applied for building rights, the department of water affairs didn’t have any information on a flood line.”
Erasmus says the Blacks never approached them to demolish the chalet but adds that they wouldn’t have considered it in any case, as it was still used by members of their family.
“We’re deeply sorry for the Blacks and wish them peace,” he says.
‘I’VE ONLY EXISTED SINCE THEN . . . I WENT THROUGH A VERY DEEP, DARK SPACE’