Fixing a brave little warrior’s heart

Plan of action to save baby born with hole in her heart

by Tia

Time was running out fast for eight-month-old Ashley Meerkotter when specialists from the world-class Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital performed a lifesaving operation to repair a hole in her heart. 

“We didn’t know if our brave little warrior would make it to her first birthday in February next year,” says Ashley’s father, Adriaan Meerkotter.

At just three weeks old, little Ashley suddenly stopped breathing. “I ran to a nearby pharmacy, where the clinic sister thankfully revived her. As a mother, it was terrifying to see my baby lose consciousness like that,” Elmarie Meerkotter adds. 

Over the next few weeks, their daughter stopped breathing several more times, which was attributed to silent reflux, and the family were taught how to resuscitate her while they sought a solution. 

“It was a very stressful time for us. In addition to Ashley’s health problems, I lost my job in IT support, and we were packing to move from Carletonville to Middelburg, Mpumalanga, when Ashley stopped breathing – but this time we couldn’t revive her and had to rush our daughter to the hospital,” Adriaan recalls. 

So began an anxious journey of tests, scans and referrals that led to Ashley being diagnosed at only six weeks old with ventricular septal defect (VSD), a large hole in the wall between the two lower chambers of the heart. 

In the public sector, these specialised and resource intensive paediatric heart procedures have a significant waiting list, and the family’s financial situation could not accommodate private healthcare. The earliest date the family could get for surgery would be in March 2024.

“When the Maboneng Foundation brought Ashley’s desperate situation to our attention, we knew she needed the Netcare Foundation and Netcare Sunninghill Hospital to step in to make her VSD closure operation happen much sooner,” says Mande Toubkin, Netcare’s general manager of trauma, transplant, and corporate social investment (CSI). 

The Netcare Foundation is the CSI arm of the Netcare Group, enabling those who need it most to access quality healthcare, emergency medical services, specialised surgery, as well as funding community sponsorships human milk banks for the distribution of donated breastmilk to premature babies, scholarships for future doctors and donations to NGOs.

“This operation is so time sensitive in babies like Ashley because this congenital heart defect damages the arteries of the lungs as the child grows, yet there is a critical window of a few months where this surgery can prevent irreversible harm,” says cardiothoracic surgeon and co-founder of the Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute, Dr Erich Schürmann.

“We were excited and scared when the application was accepted, and the date for surgery was set for 6 October. On the day when we arrived at the hospital, and especially while we were waiting for her outside the theatre, we were very anxious. We supported each other and tried to remain calm – but it’s not easy when it’s your child being operated on,” Adriaan says. 

The specialised procedure was performed by cardiothoracic surgeons Dr Schürmann and Dr Martin Myburgh of the Maboneng Heart and Lung Institute, as well as anaesthetist Dr Krishnee Naidoo and cardiac perfusionist Mr Mogotsi Mophosho, who gave their time and expertise pro bono to help Ashley.

After spending just three nights in hospital, Ashley was well enough to be discharged and continue her recovery at home and has been going from strength to strength ever since.

“Our daughter has every chance of living a normal, healthy life, and we couldn’t have asked for better doctors. We are so grateful to the surgical team and the caring ICU team at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital, as well as the Netcare and Maboneng foundations, for giving Ashley this priceless opportunity,” Adriaan says. The family also expressed their thanks to the referring paediatric cardiologist.

“She is doing so well now. Ashley is more playful, and full of laughs since her operation,” says Elmarie, as her irrepressible daughter blows kisses in the background. 

Some 10 000 babies are born with a congenital heart defect in South Africa each year, yet only a fraction receive the surgical interventions needed in time to prevent life-limiting harm, according to the Maboneng Foundation, which coordinates medical expertise and donor funding to help children like Ashley. 

For more information or to make a lifesaving donation please visit

Adriaan and Elmarie Meerkotter are thankful their baby Ashley could have her heart repair surgery sooner thanks to medical teamwork.

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