I AM A WARRIOR
Mujahid Wiener (18), a serious burn survivor, at one point experienced his life hanging in the balance, but has defied all expectations with a full recovery and the achievement of a lifelong dream.
Mujahid was born in Cape Town and grew up in Strandfontein with his mom, dad and two older siblings.
“My childhood was happy and joyful. We always did things together as a family. We would go to events and things like that.”
Mujahid’s mom worked as a receptionist and his father was a tow truck driver. While the family’s finances had to be stretched to cover everything, Mujahid’s basic needs were always met.
“It wasn’t always the best. There were times when there was no money to go out. But it’s not something that we were upset about. We understood that there were tough times and that it couldn’t always be fun.”
He recalls a day on which his life changed forever.
“I was five turning six years old. My father and I were making the fire outside for a potjie. It was a Saturday afternoon. My mom had taken off the washing and she was folding it in the lounge. The weather was perfect. No wind, nothing. It was a perfect day for a braai.
“As my father was lighting the fire, I ran past him to close the patio door. My father wasn’t aware of me running past. He lit the match and just then the wind came up and my clothes were set alight. I was wearing a nylon tracksuit. In other words, it was highly flammable. My father immediately ran to me because I was panicking and running in circles. I just saw orange and my mind went blank. I could just hear screaming but I couldn’t hear what they were saying because I went into shock. He hugged me and tore my clothes off. He prevented the fire from reaching my hair. My mom and brother came out with buckets of water and threw the water on me and they covered me with wet towels. We didn’t have a car, so the neighbour rushed me and my mom to the hospital.”
Mujahid remembers when he was rushed to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital.
“I was just getting hot and cold because of the shock. I saw my skin hanging and I didn’t know what to do. My mom was emotional. When we got to the emergency room they told us I needed to go into theatre due to smoke inhalation. Unfortunately, there was another patient in theatre due to a car accident, so I needed to wait.
“But when they finally saw me, they immediately took me to the theatre to perform surgery. According to my family, I was in theatre for close to six hours. After that, I was taken to ICU. The doctors told my mom I had developed water on my lungs, I was swollen like a watermelon. You couldn’t distinguish my eyes, nose and mouth. It was all just round.
“My lungs collapsed and everything took a turn for the worse. The doctors told my mom I wouldn’t make it and she should call the Imam. My mom told the doctors, ‘you can’t say my son won’t make it. His name is Mujahid. He is a warrior.’ The Imam did come and pray. My heart did stop beating for a bit, but it started pumping again.”
On his eleventh day in ICU, Mujahid regained consciousness.
“The doctors and nurses were smiling at my mom when she came to visit me and she was wondering why. They told her I had woken up and that I had regained consciousness. She ran straight to my bed. She asked me how I was doing and if there was anything she can get me and I said, ‘yes, I’d like some coke.’ The doctors were against it, but my mom told them, ‘you said my son is not going to make it and here he is, so if he wants coke then I’m going to give him a coke.’”
His mother visited him every day while he was recovering in ICU.
“On day 11, I was moved to the burns unit. At first, I was in an isolation ward for a few days to reduce the risk of infections. I regularly went for skin grafting. I had a 47% fire burn.
“When I was moved to the ward in the burns unit, my mom actually gave up her job to stay with me full-time. She was encouraging and told me that everything was going to be alright. She said that she wasn’t going to leave me no matter what.
“Most of the time I was sedated because of the pain. At least the morphine helped, but after a while, the morphine felt like panado, so they had to increase the dosage. I told my mom about the pain and she would tell me a story to cheer me up. My mom was my companion. My dad and siblings also visited me in the hospital regularly but my mom would sleep by my bedside. She would go home the Friday to take care of the household for the week, during which she would be with me in hospital. My sister would stay with me until my mom returned on a Sunday.”
The doctors predicted a lengthy recovery period and hospital-stay for Mujahid.
“The doctors told me I would be there for three to six months for the recovery period. But my mom told me, ‘your birthday is in April and if you are not out of hospital by then, I’m going to leave you here!’ Believe it or not, I was out of there in a month and a half and that was due to the help of my mom.”
His mother pushed him to get better. A physio would help him with exercise but his mother also helped with the exercises he needed to do, so that he could sit up again. On weekends, his mom took over from the physio.
“If I had a skin graft my mom would say, ‘walk down the aisle’ and I would cry. But she would say, ‘even if it is painful, you have to do it because you are going to get better by doing it’. In my mind, I had no choice, because all that was going through my mind was that if I didn’t do it she’d leave me in the hospital! You might think it’s harsh but actually, it benefitted me.”
Mujahid underwent multiple operations.
“I’ve had way too many operations. Too many to remember. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in the theatre. For example, if I got an infection they would have to scrape it clean. My feet and hands were swollen from the drip. There were times that I doubted my recovery but my mom kept on pushing me. Also, I had a dream to play rugby. I remember the doctor asking me what I loved doing and I replied that I loved rugby. The doctor said I wouldn’t play any contact sport again because of my sensitive skin and that really broke my spirit. I thought, ‘there goes my dream.’”
His recovery in hospital was made easier by the visits of friends and family, including his Grade two class and teacher.
“The support structure around me was really brilliant. I couldn’t have asked for better. My whole family, like my aunts, uncles and cousins would visit on the weekend and pull faces at me through the window of the ward.”
After a month, Mujahid was allowed a brief visit home.
“I went home for a weekend before I was discharged because I was recovering really well and the doctors couldn’t believe it. I left the hospital in a wheelchair and when I came back after a weekend at home, I came running in!”
Not long after, Mujahid was discharged.
“It was amazing and really nice to be out of hospital. I could sleep in my own bed again. I was in the comfort of my own home. But I still had to go to the hospital for regular check-ups. To Red Cross for my Burns and to Lentegeur hospital for play therapy. Every week I had to go in. That whole year I stayed at home and my friends would visit me. The next year, I went back to school and repeated the grade. People would visit me at home and they would pity me but I said, ‘don’t do that. I don’t need that. Rather tell me something that will make me happy.’ I wanted positive vibes. Pity would not push me forward. Pity is a step back.
“But I did have negative thoughts of my own. I thought that no one would play with me because of my scars. And to protect myself I developed the attitude that it didn’t matter what people said about me because I would use it to build myself and make myself stronger.
“When I would go for check-ups at the hospital, I would ask, ‘when can I play rugby?’ The doctors said that I wouldn’t be able to. But as my skin healed the doctor finally said that I might be able to play in the future.
“I began training with my brother in the under-19 rugby team at school. I used to tell the guys, I have a couple of scars but don’t treat me any different because we all want the same thing, to be in the starting line-up. The coach gave me an opportunity to play. I was 13 years old playing in the under-19 team. You could put whoever you wanted in front of me and I would still give it my all.
“I didn’t tell my mom I was playing rugby and eventually the principal of my school gave my game away because I had hurt my arm. My mom was shocked when she found out. She was upset but then she said, ‘as long as you feel alright I will be fine.’
“After a couple of months, I made it into the starting line-up. That was a huge deal for me. I was playing in the under-19 first team and I was still in primary school.”
But Mujahid was determined to go even further with rugby.
“The following year, I was in high school and I was invited to compete in the trials for the Western Province under-15 team. Unfortunately, I was not successful. I took it as a learning curve. In Grade 9, I went for trials again and eventually got selected to represent Western Province under-15. Yoh! It was basically a dream come true.
“At first, I was overwhelmed. I thought it was not real. I couldn’t believe it. It sunk in when they gave me my province colours. My mom was over the moon. She said we needed to go back to the hospital to tell the doctors what I had achieved and to tell them that they had lied to me! The doctors and nurses were amazed at the news. They were really happy for me. Up until today I still pop into the burns unit at Red Cross Children’s Hospital to say hi to the doctors and nurses. It was basically my second home!”
His stay in hospital also coincided with the establishment of RX Radio at Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Mujahid was given a recorder and started interviewing doctors and nurses at the hospital along with a few other young reporters who were patients at the hospital. The broadcasting bug bit and he is now a sports presenter on RX Radio. He presents every second Saturday of the month.
Mujahid concludes: “Basically, no matter your circumstances, you should never let them determine what you want your future to be. The so-called ‘experts’ will try to predict your future with the best of their intentions. But be aware, what they say might condition you to limit yourself. This will happen in all areas of our lives. I was lucky that my mom kept reminding me that I am a ‘warrior.’ At the end, what you truly believe does become your fate.”
Mujahid is the first Youth Ambassador of the Hospital Trust.