Kids' hospital fulfils Mandela dream 3 years after death

JOHANNESBURG-Brightly-painted wards and colourful furnishings are matched by state-of-the-art equipment and pioneering operating theatres at a new children's hospital in Johannesburg honouring Nelson Mandela.

After he led the struggle to dismantle apartheid, one of Mandela's most cherished dreams was to build the first specialist paediatric hospital in southern Africa.

To mark the third anniversary of his death on December 5, and more than 10 years after he conceived the idea, the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital admits its first patients on December 2.

His dream materialised after a successful battle for funds despite the global economic downturn and the difficulties of inspiring donors without Mandela's charm and iconic presence.

"It's a miracle, or just short of a miracle. The children's hospital was a dream - nothing but a dream and an idea," Sibongile Mkhabela, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, told AFP on a tour of one of the new wards.

Mandela, who was South Africa's first post-apartheid president from 1994 - 1999, officially started the project in July 2009 at the site of an old cricket ground.

Much of the fund-raising took place as Mandela became increasingly frail and unable to lobby for donations. "We needed $100 million (95 million euros), we had not a penny," said Mkhabela.

"It was very difficult to do it without him... extremely difficult, but people were ready to hear us, they could relate to the vision. "There are a number of ways that you can remember Mr Mandela, he was a statesman. You could build a statue... but at his core, he loved children." The 200-bed healthcare facility had to compete for funding with emergency humanitarian crises in Syria and elsewhere.

"South Africa was not seen as a big area of need," Mkhabela said. Construction finally began in 2014 as donations came in from philanthropists and businesses including the Bill Gates Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Islamic Relief Worldwide and South African businessman Eric Samson.

Some children even emptied their piggy banks, while ordinary South Africans donated through a popular text message appeal.

The hospital logo of animated faces was designed by children, as was the wallpaper in the wards and along the corridors. The three-floor critical-care facility will provide cancer care, kidney and lung treatment, as well as heart, chest and brain surgery and a range of other urgent medical needs.

It will be staffed by 450 paediatric nurses who have been undergoing training over the past five years and 150 specialist doctors, including some from Canada's Hospital for Sick Children and John Hopkins Medicine International in the US.

Built on a plot of land covering 34,000 square metres (370,000 square feet) in the grounds of the University of the Witwatersrand, the hospital will offer free services to those from poorer backgrounds and only charge those who can afford it.

It is equipped with a wide array of advanced equipment, including ultra-sensitive scanners that can detect the "minutest" details and make "diagnoses that general equipment might not pick up", said Joe Seoloane, the hospital's project leader.

"It's a children's hospital and must specialise in conditions that are unique to children.

"We are proud and excited that ultimately, come December 2, we can officially say 'Africa: here is a hospital for those conditions that you thought you need to go to Europe for'."

The hospital will also offer video broadcasting so that doctors in outlying areas across southern Africa can learn from live operations.

It will be Africa's fifth children's hospital: there are two in Egypt, one in Kenya and a Red Cross hospital in Cape Town, all of which were built several decades ago.

The hospital will have a radio station streaming music into the wards to entertain the children and will also offer on-site accommodation for parents.

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