Thandekile said Education (BeD) in Science at the Midlands State University was agonisingly brought to an abrupt end. So heart-rending was the road accident that it left her with a serious spinal cord compression, a condition which even some medical practitioners who first attended to her could only wish for the better.
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Bulawayo doctors in landmark spinal cord surgery

DECEMBER 31, 2023, is the day 24-year-old Thandekile Mpofu, from Bulawayo’s sprawling Pumula South suburb would want to quickly forget.

Earlier during the day, she was drenched in a merry-making mood with her colleagues in preparation of the much-celebrated midnight stroke to mark the end of that year and the beginning of 2024.

Just like her peers, Thandekile had already made her New Year resolutions, which included getting her first ever job this year. However, little did she know that the worst was awaiting her just before firecrackers and champagne were blown off to mark the blessings of living throughout to see another year.

As fate would have it, with just two hours to go, Thandelike’s ve hicle in which she was a passenger veered off the road, hit bridge rails, before plunging metres down from a railway fly over near the United College of Education (UCE) in Bulawayo. Sadly, while others escaped with insignificant injuries, for her, life was at stake.

To make matters worse for Thandekile, it was a double tragedy as her other celebration for com pleting a hard won Bachelor of imagine it was just a month after graduating, with high hopes of a new life beginning, but in a split of a second, I found myself seeing the end of that short-lived life. It was just traumatic. Thank God I am surely recovering,”

Thandekile said Education (BeD) in Science at the Midlands State University was agonisingly brought to an abrupt end. So heart-rending was the road accident that it left her with a serious spinal cord compression, a condition which even some medical practitioners who first attended to her could only wish for the better.

In the absence of requisite equipment and medication in the country’s public hospitals coupled with the out of reach costs for the private hospitals, time was fast running out for the young woman. Perhaps with the grace of God, she lived to tell a story.

“I did not see myself being able to walk again let alone survive,” Thandekile told the Daily News after her release from a two months long hospitalisation. “Soon after the accident, I was ferried to Mpilo Central Hospital by some Good Samaritans. At that moment, I felt like my life was coming to an end. I saw continuous dark clouds hovering above and around me. I had numerous black-outs and I would sometimes go unconscious,” recalls Thandekile.

“I was later transferred to Charter Medical Hospital. It was then that I realised how critical my condition was, I thought I was going to be paralysed forever, a lot of doomed thoughts ran across my mind non-stop,” she added. “Generally, I can say it was the most traumatic period in my life, as she fought back her tears.

According to a neurosurgeon, who attended to her, Dr Lawrence Hlatshwayo, Thandekile sustained a spinal cord injury manifesting as total loss of power and sensation in both lower limbs up to the upper chest level.

He said in their medical grades of classification, she was in ASIA A, meaning she was in the last and worst stages of spinal grade injury where one has loss of power and sensation.

“The success of such operations unfortunately is highly dependent on many factors especially in our own setting. Availability of resources in particular imaging and in the case of our patient it was an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan which confirmed active cord compression from a disc which had not been detected after a computerised tomography (CT) scan,” Hlatshwayo told the Daily News. Call it fortune or grace, the incident happened after the government had just set up an MRI scan at Mpilo Central Hospital.

“Thanks to the government for providing such a facility at Mpilo Hospital. The other is time factor as many people end up condemned to complete paralysis because of delayed assistance. “Given the above factors most patients do not succeed. Also take note; most patients fail to see neurosurgeons because of the critical shortage of human skills in this area but, again thanks to the government effort in trying to address such challenges.

“The operation itself was delicate in the sense that you are operating in a tiny space where you have risk of further damaging the cord itself and any minor bleed would lead to serious ischemic injury of the cord as the place naturally has limited blood supply.

Therefore, overall it’s a 50-50 story,” he said. Hlatshwayo explained further; “What was vital to consider was es tablishing whether it was a complete or incomplete spinal cord injury as some patients sometimes present in spinal shock yet chances of recovery will be there.

“While hope had been lost, we soon discovered that the patient had some little sensation of proprioception — the ability to detect position of any part of the body in space without visual input. That automatically meant her injury was incomplete meaning there was room for improvement if the correct decision and surgery was to be implemented in time.” Thandekile’s mother Sibongile Mpofu still could not believe that her fourth child was slowly coming back to normal life.

“To me it’s a miracle. When I saw the condition in which my daughter was, I gave everything to God. Personally, I think God guided these doctors because the situation was just unimaginable. No parent wants to see his or her child in that state. It was such a painful period. But I am happy she is recovering fully well,” Mpofu said.

The chief medical officer at Charter Medical Centre Hospital where the operation was conducted Dr Clestos Masiya explained the complexity that involved the surgery in question.

“She had a spinal injury at T6 level or high thoracic injury, so it’s just a few centimetres to the nerve that holds the muscles of the respiratory tract from breathing during anaesthesia, so if you go there, the nerve can temporarily shut down leading to respiratory failure.

“It’s a nightmare for all anaesthetics. A patient can be released from the theatre, but going to the ward he or she will suffer respiratory failure where the muscles of breathing will be paralysed, so one will need continuous ventilation,” Masiya told the Daily News .

He added that said after realising the complexity of the situation which was near death, they had to seek a consent from the family to proceed with surgery.

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