New Beginnings: Life after a drowning

Cayley Habelgaarn was an active, happy three-year old girl. It was December 2013 and her family were all at home. They were looking forward to their summer holiday when something happened that would change their lives forever. While she was playing outside Cayley slipped into the family’s swimming pool.

Pippa Hudson spoke to Sharnay Habelgaarn about life before and after the drowning.

The Habelgaarn’s pool was always covered with a sturdy net. However it was difficult to take off and put back on. They were all at home that week so they left the net off.

She was a very active little girl, she was always busy and adventurous

Sharnay Habelgaarn, Cayley’s mother

The morning of the accident Cayley woke her mother with her usual happy words:

Mommy you should wake up the sun is shining

Cayley Habelgaarn, aged three

Sharnay chatted to her daughter and then wanting to catch up a little extra sleep sent Cayley to her grandfather’s room. Somewhere after leaving her grandfather’s room she went outside. The house had an eerie quiet which prompted Sharnay's father to say, “Where’s Cayley?” “I sent her to your room”, his daughter replied. “But I sent her back to you…”

Father and daughter dashed towards the glass sliding doors that opened onto the swimming pool. Through the doors they could see Cayley lying at the bottom of the pool.

That moment when your heart stops and your body goes into automatic drive. That moment that divides your life into before and after. That was the moment when Mr. Habelgaarn jumped into the pool and fished out his lifeless granddaughter.

She had no pulse, no heart rate. Her pupils were dilated

Sharnay Habelgaarn, Cayley’s mother

Sharnay immediately gave her child CPR. They were unable to get hold of an ambulance. So they put Cayley in the car and raced to the hospital.

Cayley had spent:

  • 10 minutes in the pool
  • 10 minutes in the car
  • 20 minutes being resuscitated

The hospital said that her PH levels were just two inches above someone dead. Fortunately the hospital was able to treat Cayley with the latest hypothermal therapy. They put her in an induced coma by placing ice packs around the brain so the cells wouldn’t degenerate. She was incubated and spent a week in ICU.

Can you describe for me the child that woke up versus the child you’d seen the day before?

Pippa Hudson. presenter

Sharnay remembers it vividly.

She didn't recognize anyone and she would do this gagging thing.

You could let a plate drop right next to her and she wouldn't have a fright. She never responded to any light. She went into spasms and her face went red, her tongue went blue. That went on for a month.

She got extremely thin, she was just not the Cayley we knew. There was no one inside that body

Sharnay Habelgaarn, Cayley’s mother

Amidst the trauma and anguish Sharnay managed to remain cautiously optimistic. Because of the progressive treatment Cayley's pediatrician was positive about the outcome. However the nurses and some of the staff said the family shouldn’t get their hopes up too much. Cayley had a 50/50 chance of pulling through.

It’s up to God if she makes it through and becomes herself again

Hospital Staff

After Cayley was discharged from hospital she was still unresponsive and didn’t recognize any of her family. She was admitted full time to a rehab center. Then on her fourth birthday the miracle happened. Cayley came home for the day to celebrate her birthday with her family. On that day she gifted her family with a smile. For the first time since the accident she showed signs of recognizing people and objects.

October 2014, almost a year after the drowning Cayley Habelgaarn came home for good. Today she goes to school. She has met all her cognitive milestones and her bubbly personality has returned. Physically she still has challenges. She still can’t walk and struggles to eat. She has a condition known as apoptosis. When she initiates a movement it's uncoordinated and she shakes the whole time. Cayley still needs intensive therapy and here's the crux:

There is an 18 months window period where the most improvements can happen after a neurological injur

Sharnay Habelgaarn, Cayley’s mother

Her grandparents are very active with Cayley. The teachers at her school are fantastic but the challenges remain huge:

  • Eating can take an hour
  • Bathing is the biggest challenge with Cayley continuously moving and shaking in the water
  • Most people find it hard to understand her speech

Cayley’s medical bills have placed huge financial strain on the family. She requires occupational, physio and speech therapy. She needs this before she starts developing compensatory habits. At present Cayley is only receiving physio once a week, she needs it every day.

While Sharnay is a fourth year physiotherapy student treating one’s own child is not ideal. Pediatric physiotherapy is very specialized. Furthermore Sharnay finds it highly traumatic treating her own daughter. It is important for both of them that Sharnay can be a mother to her daughter, not a physiotherapist.

In spite of the trauma, the challenges and an uncertain future Sharnay’s faith has kept her going:

Cayley survived forty minutes without oxygen which is unbelievable. Normal humans can’t survive four minutes without oxygen. So faith is my greatest message. What you put out is what you receive.

Sharnay Habelgaarn, Cayley’s mother

If you can help give Cayley a new beginning contact pippah@capetalk.co.za

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