We #BelieveIn You: How 13-year-old Mignon Smith is learning to walk again
In March 2019, Mignon Smith dived into a swimming pool and broke her neck. Less than a year later, she has started high-school and is focused on walking again by the end of the year. Her goals have had to shift a bit, but she’s determined to live her best life.
On the 22nd of March 2019, 12-year-old Mignon Smith dived into a swimming pool at a holiday resort in Bela Bela. Mignon was a strong swimmer, and so her parents weren’t watching her at that moment as she played, focusing on ensuring her much younger brother was safely wall climbing instead.
That day wasn’t like any other though. Doctors still aren’t sure exactly what happened, but they think that Mignon turned her head to the right just as she hit the water. The new angle meant she hit the pool’s surface with the force of hitting concrete. Tendons tore on the left side of her neck and her C5 spinal vertebra ruptured. Face down in the water, Mignon realized she couldn’t move.
And then two things happened that saved Mignon’s life. First, she didn’t try to gasp for breath. Years spent training in swimming pools meant she automatically closed her lungs. Second, two other swimmers in the pool with her realized she was in trouble and pulled her from the water. From there, two young nursing students that were on a long-weekend break and hanging around the pool instantly knew what to do, stabilizing her while the resort called an ambulance.
When time is of the essence
Any parent can only imagine the shock and fear that Mignon’s parents, Colette and Alastair Smith, were experiencing.
Mignon clearly couldn’t move, but she didn’t have a mark on her. What had happened? Did she have a concussion? What had she hit?
“We were transported to the local private hospital in Bela Bela,” says Colette. “It was the closest facility and Mignon needed to be stabilized before we could determine what needed to happen next.”
The doctors in Bela Bela quickly realized that Mignon had a spinal cord injury, and that time was of the essence. It was a Friday night on a long-weekend, but she needed to be transported to Life Eugene Marais Hospital in Pretoria as quickly as possible. The Smith’s medical aid is covered by Profmed, and calls had already been placed to authorize an ambulance. The challenge was that Profmed contracts to Netcare 911, and there are no Netcare 911 ambulances in Bela Bela.
“We needed to get a private ambulance authorized, which required speaking to a manager and not just a call centre agent, but we managed to get everything arranged,” says Colette.
Colette and her husband Alastair learnt an incredibly valuable lesson that evening though – information, and particularly the right information, is critically important when it comes to a medical emergency.
“At that stage, Mignon had been reported as a near drowning. She needed medical attention, but the urgency of her case wasn’t clear. That incorrect information slowed the process of getting an ambulance authorized so that we could move her to Eugene Marais. Our experience over the past ten months has been that Profmed is here to assist us every step of the way of Mignon’s recovery, but sharing the right information is a really important part of that process.”
Working together to achieve results
Once Mignon arrived at Eugene Marias, a CT scan and an MRI were ordered to determine the severity of her injuries.
“That was when we found out that Mignon’s C5 vertebra was burst and that she had bruising on her C6 vertebra,” says Colette. Doctors started preparing Alastair and Collette for the worst – their daughter was paralysed and would be living in a wheelchair, and no one could predict whether she would recover.
Which was something Colette refused to accept. “Profmed’s intensive case worker, Hannelie Weyers is the most incredible person. She has been with us every step of the way, from the moment Mignon was admitted to Eugene Marais. But even she asked me how I was coping with the fact that my daughter would be in a wheelchair,” says Colette.
“My answer was simple. I’m not, I told her, because I don’t accept that she will be. We will do everything in our power to make sure she walks again, and you’re going to help us.”
Which is exactly what both Hannelie and Profmed have done. “Spinal cord injuries are complex,” explains Colette. “Mignon’s surgery took place on the Monday evening following her accident, and she was in the pediatric ICU for 12 days after that. She was then moved to rehab. And that’s when things started getting complicated.”
At this point, Mignon was still completely immobile. “I had no idea what was happening,” she says. “I understood that I’d had an operation, and that they’d taken some bone from my hip to replace my burst C5 vertebra, and had fused it with my C6. But I thought that was it. By day two I’d be moving my hands and by day three I’d be walking again. I didn’t understand what recovery entailed.”
She wasn’t alone. There is so much that needs to happen in a case like Mignon’s that it’s almost a full-time job figuring it all out.
“Surgeons, specialists and facilities don’t really communicate with each other,” explains Colette. “That’s why someone like Hannelie is so important. She brings it all together and has a broader view of what’s happening and what care Mignon needs.”
The long road to recovery
Most medical aids cover private rehabilitation for 8 weeks. In Mignon’s case, this wasn’t enough. “The swelling meant that Mignon didn’t follow normal protocols. She only started getting movement back after eight weeks, but then quite a lot came back at once,” says Colette.
To ensure their daughter continued to get the care she needed, Colette and Alastair applied for an extension of Mignon’s stay at the rehab facility, Mediclinic Muelmed.
“All together, Profmed approved 16 weeks in the rehab facility,” says Alastair. “It makes a huge difference to recovery. As an out-patient, Mignon sees a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, a counsellor, a urologist and a biokineticist, but her early recovery was critical.”
“We’ve seen how patients from state facilities who don’t have that same level of care that Mignon received deteriorate. The problem is that there’s no fixed formula for what Mignon needs. We have to work it out, speak to her specialists, determine what her unique needs are and then request the support we need from Profmed.”
How an incredible attitude is shaping Mignon’s recovery
Ten months after her accident, Mignon is 13 years old and a Grade 8 pupil at Afrikaans Hoër Meisieskool Pretoria (AHMP). She is determined to walk by the end of the year. She can move her feet slightly, has movement in her arms and upper body, and continues her out-patient rehab.
She is fiercely goal-orientated and works hard at both her recovery and maintaining her previous ambitions to excel academically.
“I know what I want in life,” says Mignon. “I know what I want to achieve. The accident threw everything around for me. I didn’t know what to grab hold of or where to begin putting my life back together. I had to start over, and so I returned to my goals. What had they been before the accident? One of them was to graduate from primary school with good grades. So, I started there.”
Which is why, despite missing 74 days of school, Mignon graduated with distinctions.
Her biokineticist, Justin Jeffery from Adjustability in Rivonia, arranged with his insurance to take their Ekso Skeleton, a large frame/robot that helps patients to walk themselves, off Adjustability’s premises so that Mignon could walk onto stage to accept her certificate during their primary school graduation ceremony. Justin arranged with Ashley van Tonder and Jiten Kunvar, who are Mignon’s treating biokineticists at Adjustability, to assist her on the evening. It made her recovery and the evening so much more special.
The reality is that recovery takes a village to achieve. “We have had the most incredible support,” says Colette. “Hannelie, Justin, Ashleigh and Jiten (from Adjustability), Susan, who is Mignon’s physio, Corrianne, who is Mignon’s OT, Dr Voss, who is Mignon’s Urologist and Profmed – everyone we work with is in our corner.
“Early last year Alastair and I discussed changing our medical aid plan to a hospital plan. We had young children and everyone was healthy. We didn’t think we needed such comprehensive cover. But we didn’t do anything about it immediately, and a few months later when Mignon had her accident, we were still on Profmed ProSecure.
“If we weren’t, we would have lost our house by now. Mignon certainly wouldn’t have received the level of care that we’ve been able to provide her with Profmed’s help. Our little girl will walk again, and it’s because of her determination, and the support we’ve been able to give her.”
Alastair Smith is an attorney and Colette Smith is a pharmacist. The Smith family have been Profmed members since 1998 and are on the Profmed ProSecure plan. Mignon and her younger brother were born into the scheme.