Young mother Mbali Mbatha, 27, from Winchester Hills in Johannesburg was admitted to hospital on 23 November 2020 with Covid-19 when she was 29 weeks pregnant.
Mbatha’s condition soon deteriorated and a week later on 1 December 2020, her obstetrician had no choice but to deliver her baby by emergency C-section.
“When I realised I would not be able to carry full term I was devastated. I phoned my husband, Sizwe who calmed me down and said I must let them take the baby out as it would be best for us,” Mbatha said.
“All I remember is the cold. It was terribly cold in the operating theatre. I felt so alone – my husband could not be with me. It was a very distressing experience, as I did not even see the baby. I gave birth to my little girl and I passed out,” recalls a tearful Mbatha.
She was transferred to Netcare Milpark Hospital shortly after giving birth. The new mother was in serious danger as both her lungs were infected with pneumonia and her blood oxygen levels were extremely low.
“We immediately had to escalate her treatment to a more sophisticated form of care than would generally be needed by most patients with Covid-19 pneumonia,” says Dr Paul Williams, pulmonologist intensivist at Netcare Milpark Hospital,.
Mbatha was taken straight from the ambulance into theatre where she was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which artificially maintains a supply of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs for patients who require respiratory and cardiac support.
Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Martin Sussman says ECMO is essentially an artificial lung. “The circuit does the work of the lungs and that is how we kept Mbali alive while she had Covid-pneumonia.”
There was very little hope the young mother would survive and a lung transplant was her only hope of meeting her new-born daughter.
Dr Williams and Dr Sussman, who led the lung transplant team, found themselves in uncharted territory as they had never performed a lung transplant for a Covid-19 patient before.
“Covid-19 is a new one for us. We have had no experience in transplantation with this virus and we are fairly sure that we are the first team in South Africa to do it – perhaps we are even the first team on the African continent. Throughout the world there have been only around 100 lung transplants performed so far for Covid-19 pneumonia at a handful of facilities,” Sussman said.
Dr Williams says they were honoured to be part of Mbatha’s surgery team. “To be able to do a transplant on this young woman who is also a mother, was really something special. We did it for her and her baby.”
On the road to recovery
Mbatha doesn’t remember anything about her 113-day hospital stay. She says her first memory after delivering her baby was waking up in Netcare Milpark Hospital. “Some time after I woke up, I was told that I had been in a coma for two months and that I had a lung transplant.”
Dr Sussman says while Mbatha recovered from Covid-19, her lungs did not.
“One of the complications of Covid-19 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.”
Mbatha and her three-month-old baby girl, Kuhle, which means “all is well”, was recently discharged from hospital and both are doing well.
“I am so thankful to be here today and that I have been given an opportunity to raise my daughter. I am grateful to the doctors and staff of Netcare Park Lane Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. I am particularly grateful to the donor and the brave family for the gift of life which ensured I have been given this second chance,” the young mom says.