Johannesburg – If miracles exist, Ayanda Nqinana may just have swallowed one.
After reading a report in City Press last month, his wife, Nomfundo, insisted that he be given a prescription for the sleeping pill Stilnox, which has the opposite effect on those with brain injuries.
It worked – and brought him out of a seven-year coma. Nqinana had been the Peddie Municipality’s director of local development before a late-night car crash on a lonely Eastern Cape road in 2005 almost ended his life. The accident tore him from his wife and their 2-year old son, Ayavuya, and left him with severe brain injuries, a fractured hip and legs, and unable to talk, leave his bed or feed himself.
For the past seven years, Nomfundo has visited her husband in East London’s Newhaven Hospital, hoping for signs that the man she had known before the accident was still inside his body.
“His eyes, he couldn’t follow any direction. For instance, if you were talking to him, even if you move from this angle to that angle, he doesn’t follow you. He couldn’t talk. Not at all,” she said.
Nqinana’s doctors said he’d probably remain that way.
But on August 12, family friend Nceba Mokoena came across an article in City Press about a miracle recovery made by another car crash victim, hundreds of kilometres away in Gauteng. Louis Viljoen was given the sleeping pill by chance by his mother, Sienie. She had noticed he wasn’t sleeping peacefully and asked her doctor if she could give him half a sleeping tablet. After she did, Louis opened his eyes and said “Hello Mamma”, his first words in five years.
Nceba phoned Nomfundo immediately to ask if she had seen the story, and whether or not Stilnox might just help her husband. Initially, Ayanda’s doctor was not convinced, telling her not to place too much faith in newspaper reports. But Nomfundo insisted. “Because I’ve been praying a lot for my husband to get better, I can try anything that is possible for his health. So eventually we agreed to get a prescription.”
They began giving Ayanda the drug, and waited to see what would happen. Five days passed with no improvement.
“The date was August 29. I received a call from Newhaven saying, ‘Is it possible for you, Mrs Nqinana, to come in on your way back from Bhisho’ – on my way back from work – ‘and see us?’ because my husband was talking,” she said.
She rushed there and found the hospital abuzz. Nurses rushed to call her to her husband’s room and followed her inside.
“The first thing that he said to me, in Xhosa, was ‘Are you here? They called you to come here?’ I couldn’t believe it. I just took a chair and sat down.”
Not only had he recovered enough to talk, but he remembered his family and was able to hold a conversation. He asked his wife where she was working, and how she managed her daily commute between East London and Bhisho.
“I was so amazed, and the tears were just falling, falling all over my cheeks. I couldn’t believe that Ayanda was talking,” she said.
Since then, he has regained much of his awareness and has caught up on years of lost memories. He also holds long conversations with his now 9-year-old son.
As soon as he regains enough strength in his wasted muscles, Ayanda will be able to fulfil his son’s greatest wish, and come home.
The growing number of comatose patients transformed by Stilnox has not escaped the notice of the provincial department of health.
Dr Siva Pillay, head of the Eastern Cape health department, said that they were aware of Ayanda and Louis’ cases, and that policies for using the drug more widely were now being formulated.