Family Life

Denelle Burnett of Brackenfell, Cape Town, was told there was little hope for her premature baby when he was born at Mediclinic Panorama at 27 weeks – but little Wiaan is seven years old now and is a healthy, happy, and thriving Grade 1 learner. Denelle shares her harrowing but heart-warming story.

The first sign of trouble in pregnancy

“Everything was going well with my pregnancy. This was my second baby – my first son, Henry, was three and he couldn’t wait to meet his little brother. He’d talk to my tummy and tell the baby how they were going to play together.

Then, when I was 24 weeks along, I slipped and fell while doing a photographic shoot for friend. I started bleeding and went to my gynae who did a scan and said I’d had a placenta rupture. They managed to stop the bleeding and the doctor told me they’d monitor me closely to make sure the baby was still growing.

Three weeks later the bleeding started again, and my doctor told me to go straight to Mediclinic Panorama. I was quickly taken to a ward where I went to the toilet and blood just gushed out. I pressed the panic button and the gynae came in. I’ll never forget his next words. He said, ‘We have to take him out now or you’ll bleed to death – or our baby will drown in your blood.’ “All I said was, ‘Please, just save my baby’.” My husband, Heinrich, and I were devastated.

Premature birth at 27 weeks

I was wheeled into surgery, given an epidural and the doctor performed an emergency
C-section. When Wiaan came out he made a tiny squeaking sound, like a mouse. Heinrich just burst into tears.

Wiaan was so small – smaller than hand – and weighed only 890 grams. He was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and I was stabilised and taken to a ward.

When the paediatrician came to see me, the news was terrible: Wiaan’s corpus callosum hadn’t developed. This is the large bundle of nerve fibres that connect the two brain hemispheres and allow communication between the left and right sides of the brain. Without this, you can’t function.

The decision was to keep Wiaan on a ventilator for 21 days and then test to see how many breaths he could take on his own. If his brain hadn’t developed further, they were going to turn off the ventilator.

I just started praying and an amazing sense of peace came over me. I just knew everything was going to be okay, no matter what happens. Heinrich even told me I was freaking him out because I was so calm. 

Three months in NICU

Shortly before they turned the ventilator off three weeks later, Heinrich and I got to hold Wiaan for the first time. Things weren’t looking good – tests showed the ventilator was doing 80% of the breathing for him. I was broken. It meant he was not managing to breathe on his own – I couldn’t stop imagining a tiny shoe-box sized coffin in the church at the funeral. 

About 30 minutes later the doors to the NICU opened. The doctor said, “Mrs Burnett, I can’t explain it, but your baby is breathing on his own without any stimulation.”

From then on, Wiaan thrived. I had been pumping milk – I had so much milk I supplied for other babies too – and he started steadily gaining weight. Soon he was strong enough to latch onto my breast, which was wonderful.

Wiaan was born on 6 October, and he came home on 6 January, which was his birth date. The day he was discharged, all the nurses in the NICU came to say goodbye to us. They called him “our miracle” and that’s what he is – a miracle child who had survived all odds.

Angels of the NICU 

The staff were all incredible. They cried with us, they laughed with us, they were with us every step of the way. We really had five-star service at Mediclinic Panorama.

Everyone was so caring and kind. On days when I was down – and you do get down – the staff would tell me, “It’s okay, Mommy, just go for a walk. Be kind to yourself.” That really helped a lot.

If there’s any advice I can give to other moms of preemies, it would be this: don’t be afraid to ask for help and to lean on others when you need to. It’s okay to say you’re not okay.

Onwards and upwards

Wiaan is nothing short of incredible. For the first six months we had to be careful to ensure he didn’t get an infection but after that it was all systems go.

He’s in Grade 1 now and shows zero sign of his traumatic start to life. He loves reading and his schoolwork and he’s so energetic. I want him to start doing gymnastics soon, I think he’ll be good at it. He’s also a typical little boy who loves to push boundaries – I say he’s seven going on 14!

When I look at Wiaan and see how perfect he is, it’s almost impossible to think of the rough start he had. Thanks to the angels at the Mediclinic Panorama and God, our family is complete.

Medical expertise in NICU

As Brendely Pretorius, the NICU Unit Manager at Mediclinic Panorama explains, premature babies like Wiaan are nursed in temperature-controlled closed incubators to prevent hypothermia. There are strict infection-prevention and control measures in place and visitors are restricted to reduce the infection risk. “NICU nurses are advocates for every premature baby – we do everything for them as they are unable to speak for themselves,” she says. “We also look after the parents and the extended family as a unit. We celebrate each milestone together. 

Treatments in a NICU can include:

  1. Administering surfactant (a fluid that is naturally present in babies over 37 weeks’ gestation). Surfactant helps keeps the lungs open and allows them to expand and contract.
  2. Starting medication to prevent apnoea (when your baby stops breathing). This is continued until your baby is the equivalent of 35 weeks of gestational age (when the risk of apnoea usually resolves).
  3. Giving antibiotics if an infection is suspected.
  4. Giving electrolytes and glucose via intravenous infusions according to individually calculated values. The aim is to support your baby’s metabolic function and hydration.
  5. Using phototherapy (ultraviolet lights) if your baby is jaundiced.