Born at 29 weeks and weighing just over 1kg, Wayde van Niekerk’s parents never thought he would survive, let alone become a successful athlete.
After his mother, Odessa Swarts, gave birth to him at Tygerberg 23 years ago, the South African track and field champion and 400m sprinter would later be treated at Groote Schuur Hospital’s neonatal unit, where he spent several weeks in an incubator.
“From what my mother tells me it was apparently a very difficult and emotional journey to have a premature baby. There were days where she was not sure whether I was going to make it the next day. That’s how sick I was,” he said.
On Thursday, Van Niekerk, currently the fourth fastest person in history and the first athlete to run the 100m in under 10 seconds, and the 200m in under 20 seconds, donated half-a-million rand to the Newborns Groote Schuur Trust to aid the upgrade of that hospital’s neonatal unit.
Through the Trust, the hospital is fundraising money to expand the unit, which is currently battling to cope due the incidence of pre-term birth in the province.
The unit, which was built in the 1970s, is overcrowded and unable to meet the demand of caring for more than 3 000 babies a year – mostly premature babies.
During the handover of the cheque at the Century City Convention Centre on Thursday, where he was also named the face of an ICT company, T-systems, Van Niekerk said through the donation he hoped to make his mother proud.
“My mother is very passionate about premature babies since she cared for one herself. Through this donation I’m showing my support to her causes, and to make her proud. I’m my mother’s seed and I want to help her in every manner I can. But more importantly, I’m hoping to help thousands of premature babies who go through Groote Schuur Hospital’s neonatal unit.
“As a small premature baby, I was given a fighting chance to survive, and so it’s very important to me to help give other preemies the best chance at life.”
Dr Lloyd Tooke, senior neonatologist at Groote Schuur Hospital, said Van Niekerk’s success as an athlete had shown that premature babies could also achieve against the odds. “He is truly an inspiration not only for families of premature infants but for all of us.”
Having raised more than R5 million so far, the hospital’s chief executive Bhavna Patel said the latest amount would be used to buy modern equipment for the upgraded unit.