Journey: 5

My uncle Johan takes my mother and myself to Tygerberg Hospital. The route he takes has many turns and intersections. I lie on the back seat watching the street lights flashing past. I wonder how I will ever find the route by myself.

Tygerberg is a deathly maze. We are soon lost in the endless corridors. At last we find the right floor. An unpleasant sickly smell lingers in the Intensive Burns Unit where we hope to find Paul. It smells like skin, blood, puss, plasters, ointments, alcohol, bandages and death.

It is an incredible shock to see Paul. His face and head, hands, arms, chest, legs and feet are covered in bandages. He is on a ventilator, and he is hooked up to many wires and drips. There are beeping monitors. His face, lips and nose are swollen to double their normal size. Nobody had warned me that he would look like this. I can’t recognise him, I refuse to believe it is really him. When I said goodbye to him in the ambulance, he still looked like Paul. How can it be? I sway on my feet, on the verge of collapsing.

“Mrs. Nieuwenhuis, your husband has suffered 30 to 40% burns,” a nurse tells me. I nod. I have no idea what the implications of this statement could be. I’ve been awake for almost 36 hours – my ability to absorb further shocks is almost nil.

By the time I arrive home, Roald and Mila are already there.

“We had a ride in the fire engine with Jaco. He also has a little girl the same age as Mila,” Roald tells me.

I suddenly realise that he and Mila were also hurt. Mila has a small cut on her ankle from the broken window. Roald’s face and ears are burnt. He’s been bandaged up expertly.

“Who put the bandages on for you, my boy?”

“Jaco.  His wife cut Mila’s hair a bit where it was woolly. And she put a plaster on her leg. Mila and the other little girl slept so sweetly next to each other.”

Roald’s voice is shaky. He is trying to swallow his tears.

“Jaco and his wife were very nice.”

I would never recognise Jaco if I bumped into him again – I only saw him for a few seconds – but the thankfulness for his and his wife’s care will stay with me forever.

Finally, I am back in my own bed. I have intense flashbacks which keep me awake. I am ice cold with fright. Suddenly, I feel a firm, warm pressure on my forehead, like someone pressing down with their thumb. A deep calm washes over me. I open my eyes to see who it is, but there is no-one there. I wonder again about Luke. The feeling remains with me until I fall asleep.

The next morning I tell Carla, the hospital’s social worker, of my experience.

“I’ve been working here for ten years,” she tells me, “and in that time I have heard it many, many times: that people going through a crisis are visited and comforted by family members who have passed away.”

I find comfort in this, even though I know it may only be wishful thinking that Luke really is here.

Paul’s youngest sister, Maryke, and brother in law Moll, have driven through the night from Pretoria. They got lost near the hospital and arrive pale and swaying on their feet. Paul’s parents and eldest sister, Marietta, are flying down.

Before taking them into Intensive Care for the first time, I brief them, already businesslike:

“Imagine the worst possible picture, then make it ten times worse, and then you have the idea. Don’t cry next to her bed. Go and cry outside. The black which you will see on Aniek, is not her skin, it is Acticote,[1] which discolours when it is wet. The tube in her nose is to help her breathe, because her airway has swollen shut.”

Because her skin has been burned so deeply – second and third degree burns all over – her body can no longer regulate her temperature. Next to her bed are two heaters to warm her up. To reduce pressure on her body, she has been placed on a special mattress, which inflates its cells in turn. This mattress only just arrived a few days before Aniek was admitted. Brand new.

Marietta walks in. A few minutes later, she comes out again, sinks to the floor  with her head in her hands, and quietly says, “F**k.”

The reality is too frightening to really sink in. the brain refuses to accept what it has seen. It tries to offer all sorts of other options, tries to convince you that what you have seen, is not the truth. It can’t be the truth. It can not be true.

“Bewildered” is  a word that I have never used. Now, suddenly, I am bewildered every day. How do you know when you have hit rock bottom? Is it when you want to submerge yourself completely in the bath and don’t want to come up again? Is it when you have cried – wept – so hard and so long that your eyes have swollen shut and you can’t see anything anymore? Or is it when you hear that 95%[2] of your child’s body has been burnt? That her candle is burning very low? Sometimes I think, it can’t get any worse, but then I realise… it can.

[1] Acticote: wound dressing containing silver to prevent infection.

[2]85% skin surface, plus 10% for damage to the lungs.

Erica Neser (c) 2011


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tana Miller
    Dec 07, 2011 @ 09:42:33

    Oh my word!!!!!!! So gripping and intense………can’t wait for the next part!!!!!!!!!! Dit lees soos fiksie 🙂


  2. Yoga with Nicci
    Dec 07, 2011 @ 21:53:14

    It was definitely Luke. Sweet boy. Shivers down my spine. Big hugs and kisses xxx


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