It is not an unusual sight in our country to see women carrying young children on their backs, kept safely in place by a blanket or towel, as they go about their daily lives. Yet when Katlego Komane was transported around Tlaseng Village in the North West Province on her grandmother’s back, people would stop and look twice. This is because Katlego was not a small infant but a seven-year-old youngster, rendered helpless by a debilitating birth defect.
Katlego suffers from Blount’s disease, a growth disorder of the shinbone, which causes both her lower legs to angle inwards to almost a ninety-degree angle, making it extremely difficult for Katlego to walk more than a few steps at a time. An orphan, she has had to rely on her aging grandmother to carry her from place to place in her village. As a result, Katlego has been mainly confined to her grandmother’s home, unable to go to school or play with other youngsters her age.
But on 11 November last year Katlego was given a chance at a better life by the Netcare Foundation when she was operated on by Dr Danie Malan and Dr Franz Birkholtz. Dr Birkholtz is based at Netcare Unitas Hospital in Pretoria but travelled all the way to Rustenberg to treat little Katlego at Netcare Ferncrest Hospital. The surgery and subsequent treatment involved carefully breaking Katlego’s legs and then slowly straightening the bones with external fixators, which were attached to her legs during the surgery, over a number of months.
“I have treated many patients with Blount’s disease, but Katlego’s was definitely the most severe case I have ever seen. The impact the bowed-leg deformity had on her quality of life was immense,” says Dr Birkholtz.
Not many doctors in South Africa are able to perform the surgery to treat Blount’s disease, as it is a highly specialised field. The external fixators, which were sponsored by Smith and Nephew, are attached to the patient’s legs, and work in conjunction with extremely advanced technology, requiring precise calculations to make the necessary regular adjustments to the fixators. As the new bones in the legs grow, the fixators guide the bones into a new shape, helping them to grow straight.
As soon as she was physically able, Katlego practised walking with the fixators, understandably eager to get to the stage where she would be running around like all the other children her age. “We encourage patients to practise walking with the fixators, but it can sometimes be painful and they are rather unwieldy for someone so little. It is a testament to Katlego’s spirit and determination that she tried to walk so frequently,” says Dr Malan.
After four months with the external fixators attached to her legs, and regular follow-up appointments to adjust the fixators, Katlego’s legs were placed in plaster cast for six weeks to further support the bones. When the plaster cast was removed in March this year, relief and hope was clearly evident on her grandmother’s face. “Soon Katlego will be able to go to school so that she can fulfil her dream of becoming a teacher. The doctors and nurses have done so much for her and I hope one day she can do the same for other children,” says Johana Komane.
Although Katlego’s road to healing is still a long one, this gregarious little fighter will undoubtedly take bigger and bigger strides in the next few months as she slowly learns to do what other children take for granted but that she, until now, has only been able to watch from the sidelines.
Most of Netcare’s corporate social investment (CSI) is channelled through the Netcare Foundation, which was established in 2010. The Netcare Foundation partners with the public and private sector, suppliers, healthcare professionals, staff and individuals to increase access to quality private healthcare for underprivileged patients. Last year the Netcare Foundation invested over R58 million in CSI projects, including specialist interventions such as cleft lip and palate surgery, craniofacial surgery, cochlear implants, cataract surgery and treatment for elephantiasis. Assisting around 30 000 beneficiaries in 2013, Netcare won the 2013 Metropolitan Oliver Empowerment Award for socially responsible investment. It also recently received the PMR.africa Diamond Award, the highest rating in the private hospital and clinic groups category, in recognition of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and initiatives in2013.
Issued by: Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of the Netcare Foundation
Contact: Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Sarah Beswick or Jillian Penaluna
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
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