I love a happy ending! Hallmark and Disney have left their mark on me and I now suffer from an unrealistic need to always want a happy ending, regardless of the facts and reality of the odds.  I love that the princess falls in love with the prince and that they live happily ever after, and that the ugly step-sisters stay ugly and the octopus-witch gets punished. I love that the dying girl gets the heart donation she needs and then carries onto become a world-class heart surgeon the planet cannot live without. And then of course, the happy ending we absolutely have to have is that they find the puppy that went missing and ended up in a pound but then gets reunited with his forever home parents. I can sommer cry while I write this. (My poor children and nieces and everyone I know are forced to watch Steel Magnolia’s with me at least twice a year. Deep down I might not have accepted that my favourite movie of all time does not end happily).


If you have a drop of logic in you, you will  ask, “Why do you choose a job which is guaranteed to supply you with limitless unhappy endings?” I suppose we can get philosophical and discuss that most of our stories are beautiful, albeit not happy per se, but this story about Silvino is filled with joy. So here is a slice of his story with us.


If you have not read our blog, “There but for the grace of God go I” please do, as that was written on the eve of his arrival. At that stage I was filled with anxiety. I was delighted that we were able to get Silvino out of the government hospital, but worried that we would not be able to cope with his conditions and that we would disappoint his family and simply add another chapter of frustration and disappointment to the incredibly painful story of an already traumatised family.


On the Tuesday, Amanda (Silvino’s wife), came to pick up George, our super-carer, so that he could collect Silvino from hospital. We were scurrying around, getting their suite ready and filling it with flowers. Dylan the chef was reading up on best PEG feed meals and I was whispering “Don’t mess this up” on repeat in my head. When Amanda’s car pulled up, we all sprinted to the vehicle. Some of my staff had been going to the hospital to familiarise themelves with his situation, so there were familiar faces. I feared he would be overwhelmed, but it was more like he did not register much at all. When I looked in to the car and met his eyes, I was taken aback at how empty they looked. I was immediately transported back to the concentration camp, Mauthausen I visited in Austria some time ago. The prisoners’ eyes looked like Silvino’s, sunken and empty. He bravely tried to get out of the car and with a lot of support, managed the first five or six steps, but then was simply too weak and we put him in a wheelchair. Amanda and I both cried, desperately clinging to the hope that now, as he was being pushed into the warm winter sun, things would change.


Silvino still had the open wound from the tracheostomy and the doctors feared his cough reflex was not strong enough and that he still would require suctioning. This of course was the reason he was still being fed through a PEG into his stomach, but we were given a slither of hope that if he were to get stronger, the cavity would close up and he would be able to start eating normally. Silvino was so thin and sinewy that as an Afrikaans woman, all I wanted to do was feed him proper food, but we had to be careful because he could choke so easily. On the day he arrived, renowned dietician, Christine Rice, whom I have known for years from Sunninghill Medical Centre, arranged one of her co-workers, Martene Micahel, to come see Silvino. (BTW Christine, could not come personally because, like so many females at this particular centre, she runs the Comrades anually. I am worried about their mental health, but that we can unpack later). Martene arrived, and I am sure chef Dylan loved working with her as she is gorgeous. She worked out the most amazing meal plan, we needed to fatten up Silvino, get him to eat and swallow again, and most importantly, build his strength. Fast forward three weeks and Silvino is eating like a teenage boy. He LOVES his food, he progressed from PEG food, to soup, to mashed food, and then food you and I eat… and his portions are humongous!  This afternoon he had crackers, cold meats and cheese. He has such a healthy appetite one can hardly believe how the situation has changed.


Also from day one, Amie Stewart Physio’s sent one of their secret weapons, the lovely Sonali. On the very first day, she got Silvino up and between her and George, they took him for a slow, gentle walk. They probably managed 15 steps before he collapsed in a chair. The sun was streaming in on him, his wife was sitting on the floor next to him and we tried to make everything gentler and kinder for him. He was not very responsive. When we spoke he reacted, but barely spoke. He showed no emotion except for the tears that ran down his cheeks. Sonali came every day, sometimes twice. He is now doing two or three laps around the lodge, climbing stairs and walking without assistance for stretches at a time.


We immediately started smothering him with love, therapies and ‘normality’. Tracy Scott, life coach to international CEO’s and keen cyclist, came in to talk through adjusting and life “on the other side” But Silvino was totally unable to concentrate. He had seen a TV for the first time in 9 months and could not look away from the sports channel. After that, Rochelle Biatz, our go-to social worker, started chatting to the family as a whole. Dr Gabor Maté says trauma is not what happens to you, it is what happens in you because of what happened to you. This cruel journey of abuse, neglect, hopelessness and fear happened to the entire family. It might have happened to Silvino’s body, but everyone else was as intimately involved and needs to process this. Rochelle has gently started opening these emotional wounds and talking through them, generously dispensing tools as to how to cope.


During the first days I was worried that Silvino was caught in a deep depression or that maybe there was brain damage as he did not really connect. He was almost completely non-verbal and would not make eye contact for long. We could see his body getting stronger, his face filling up and his walking definitely improved with each step, but the man I saw in the “before” photo’s was not back. Not even close. I felt as if we had failed. What if Amanda’s husband was not coming back to her? What if the emotional damage was too severe and he would stay locked away inside himself for ever? The wounds on his wrists and ankles were a reminder of the restraints on him physically, what about the damage to his soul we could not see?


We have a relationship with Byron Webeloff who is a mature UNISA honours psychology student, and  has been volunteering at the lodge for months. He does the most wonderful debriefing sessions with my staff, in groups or one on one, especially around our sorrow with end-of-life patients. He also simply just showed up and said, “I am here to help, here to walk the road and will not only help Silvino, but work with Amanda, and their two children.” It is wonderful to see little bits of normality break through all of the survival and strain for this family. I think overwhelmingly they also realise they are loved, loved, loved.


When Silvino arrived it was indicated that it would be unlikely that he would ever again be able to perform daily living tasks. I asked my friend Jane Baker, an OT at Netcare Sunninghill to help. My friendship with Jane started with little Christo, a seven year old heart patient we both loved and lost. Friendships you form over the body of a child fighting for his life are cemented differently than others. Jane came at the drop of a hat, as always with her funny “props” ( I do love OT’s. My niece is one, and I do hope one day she and I can work together). Jane started pulling rabbits out of hats and today Silvino feeds himself, totally unassisted and he can even brush his own teeth, something people said he would never be able to master.  Despite initially feeling shame at building puzzles and performing simple tasks that came naturally to him before, he is now just overachieving, the whole time. He is such a show off!


And so step by timid step, Silvino got stronger and started showing me tiny moments of who he used to be. It started with him not looking away when I met his eyes. Then he started speaking a word or two, here and there. Maybe he did not trust me yet? Maybe it was just too much and the man’s soul was simply buried under too much hurt, but whatever it was, over the last week there has been a significant change.  His sense of humour came back and he started smiling with his mouth and eyes. On Wednesday I popped in to the lodge in the early evening. Silvino and Amanda were sitting by the fire in the dining room (he had just gobbled up about 6 home made biscuits, and that was before supper! Such a rebel). With limited help, he got up from the couch and without thinking I said to him “ You know Silvino, you have never even given me a hug”. He looked at me, a smile broke open on his face and he said “I am so very sorry”. He then opened his arms and I got my first hug. I could feel his heartbeat through his skinny frame and I had to swallow away my tears. This is a happy ending. It was worth the risk.


The kindness and generosity did not end with the shrinks, physio’s, OT etc. It carried on with people generously offering financial support. My beautiful blonde friend, with her sexy Yorkshire accent arrived one morning and gave me an envelope filled with cash. “Give it to Amanda, let her buy something special” is all she said. But each day she checks in with me to see how he is doing. In the mornings, she and her daughter drive past the lodge on their way to school and blow kisses to him. (The little girl calls him Silly and often sends beautiful messages to me to play for him, reminding him that there are an army of prayer warriors out there praying for him). I have a mentor, whom I love dearly and who had filled the need for a dad after mine died, who, out of the blue, deposited enough money for Silvino to stay an extra week. He has never met either Amanda or Silvino. He just listened to his heart and wanted to help make their load lighter. A man after God’s heart. Many other people have donated. One particular benefactor was so cool, it was like a proper drug deal the way it played out. He phoned me, but would not give his name. He had a burner phone and his profile picture was that of a masked person. He paid for another week, so all the cloak and dagger shenanigans were worth it.


This weekend I arranged for Mark Daly to come and do one of his incredibly healing massages. I was so excited, as I knew it would benefit Silvino hugely, but when Mark arrived, Silvino was wathcing a Man-U game and said that he’d rather watch the game than have a massage. Amanda was horrified as she thought it quite rude and ungrateful. I loved it though. Silvino got his voice back. He is his own man once again. It proves that true healing, not just of his body, has begun.


I am incredibly grateful that we were able to see this recovery. Silvino’s determination that made him survive the utter horror of the hospital is at play again, pushing himself to walk further every day, do his exercises and get stronger. I mention the hospital’s neglect often, but there were angels there too and a team of doctors and professors that fought hard to keep him alive. Silvino went to see them last week. They could not believe the sheer speed of his recovery. The human spirit is quite something, isn’t it?


I know this is not the end of the story yet, but for me it is enough. Despite what is happening all around us: the corruption, selfishness and indifference, there is also hope, compassion, generosity, love, community and of course our very own happy Disney ending, Prince Silvino.