Burns survivor recovers with skin transplant

KIM CHAKANETSA
Last updated 11:17 27/06/2012

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Bedtime for 3-year-old Isabella Kruger now includes a bottle and a massage. This ritual has become possible again as the toddler recovers from surgery that transplanted cloned skin onto her body after 80 per cent of it suffered burns in a backyard accident.

On Tuesday, Isabella, better known as Pippie, was fed her bottle by her mother Anice Kruger. Pippie is now fully awake and no longer reliant on feeding tubes after being kept under complete sedation for more than a week to ensure she kept still and did not tear her fragile new skin.

Doctors allowed an Associated Press team into Pippie's room in a Johannesburg hospital on Tuesday, another sign that the toddler is getting better.

"She is doing really, really well," her mother said.

Earlier this month, Pippie received 30 to 40 grafts of skin which had been cloned in a laboratory in Boston using a sample of her own skin and mouse cells as a scaffold. It was the first operation of its kind in South Africa.

Since the operation, Pippie has started to eat baby and mashed food and even some chicken.

The surgeon who attached her skin, Dr Ridwan Mia, says it is crucial that she is well-nourished in the weeks to come.

"Her body is building muscle, recovering, healing wounds, healing the grafts. We want her to be nice and strong," Mia said.

For her mother, Pippie's recovery is nothing short of a miracle.

She remembers with clarity the moments after a bottle of fire-accelerating gel exploded during a family barbecue, leaving her little girl with severe burns.

"It literally looked like she was boiling. Her skin was just falling off," Kruger said.

Burn victims rarely survive such severe injuries. But Pippie was a fighter.

In the months that followed, Pippie survived multiple cardiac arrests and organ failure before undergoing the skin transplant.

Mia, the surgeon, said that the skin on her legs, head and arms has taken "quite well" while the skin on her chest remains "very fragile".

He said the child is likely to be discharged "towards the end of next week." Still, after that, Pippie will have to undergo daily physiotherapy.

"There is a lot of loss of muscle bulk and strength, which is something she has to work on. It is almost like a baby that needs to gain tone and muscle," Mia said.

Another aspect of her rehabilitation will be psychological counseling.

Pippie's mother is aware that recovery will take a long time, but she is optimistic.

"The thing I'm looking forward most is just to feel her arms around my neck again. Just to get a hug," she said.

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- AP

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