Lawyers acting for a Durban hospital and paediatric surgeon made a mercy dash to the High Court this week, securing a court order allowing them to give a critically ill two-year-old girl a blood transfusion in the face of staunch opposition from her Jehovah's Witness parents.
In granting the order giving Parklands Hospital and surgeon Abdool Shaik authority to do whatever is necessary over the next seven days to save the little girl's life, Durban High Court Judge Herbert Msimang said the court, as the upper guardian of all children, had to act in their best interests.
The parents, Thabani and Simangele Mabanga, who were supported in court by members of their church, had argued earlier that God was the ultimate guardian, and that according to their religious beliefs they would not give consent for a transfusion.
Their daughter was admitted to hospital at the end of August suffering from pneumonia. She was diagnosed with a massive sub-hepatic abscess in her abdominal cavity and was referred to Shaik for surgery.
In his affidavit before the judge, Shaik said she was critically ill - "in the early stages of cardiac arrest" - and in urgent need of abdominal surgery and a blood transfusion to enable the surgery to be performed.
Because of the nature of the surgery, she would lose a considerable amount of blood.
"This will be compensated by the giving of a blood transfusion prior to and possibly after surgery. It is my opinion, and the opinion of the anaesthetist, that in the absence of this, the child is unlikely to survive surgery."
This had been explained to the parents, but they had declined to authorise the blood transfusions "as it is contrary to the tenets of their faith".
On Monday the parents had indicated that if emergency surgery was required, and all efforts to avoid a blood transfusion had failed, and Shaik regarded it as vital to save her life, then the transfusion could be done.
But they changed their minds and withdrew this "conditional authority".
"I am now concerned that the parents might withdraw their consent to the life-saving surgery as well," Shaik said.
The parents suggested during Tuesday's court hearing that the doctor should consider using a synthesised protein product that reportedly helps to oxygenate the blood.
But they only handed in pamphlets on the product and had no medical evidence to back them up. It was also suggested that the product had not been registered for use on small children in South Africa.
Advocates acting for the hospital and the doctor said they respected the parents' right to their religious beliefs but that that had to be weighed against the constitutional right to life. They referred to a similar case in Johannesburg in 2003 in which the court had granted a similar order.
Approached by The Mercury on Wednesday, Gillian Williams, of MacRobert, the firm representing the doctor, said the little girl was being operated on on Wednesday and would be transfused during and, if necessary, after the surgery.