News that the Eastern Cape’s new, state of the art, haematology unit cannot open because there is no money to pay staff, is just another phase in a battle that started for Reverend Nicolette Leonard in 2008 when she was told that she had a rare blood disease.
It was a journey that started as a fearful death sentence, then progressed to calling on God, receiving and standing on promises in Scripture, being healed and called by God to help blood cancer patients in the Eastern Cape, and eventually playing a key role in establishing the Aloe Igazi Haematology Unit in Port Elizabeth.
The unit that was launched in Port Elizabeth on May 9 has been described as one of the best in the world. But just two weeks after the launch the Eastern Cape health department disclosed it does not have the money to staff the new facility in the Provincial Hospital.
“It was a great victory when the unit was launched. But we now know that our work has really just started,” said Nicolette, an Anglican minister and head of the House of Resurrection child aids haven in Port Elizabeth. “We hope and pray that the money to pay for staff will be found before September.”
Nicolette has reason to believe that God will undertake in this latest round of the battle that began when she was diagnosed with myelofibrosis.
“It was extremely scary — a death sentence,” said Nicolette, who said she was too shocked to share the news with anyone but Myron.
“I spent two days face-down in my room asking God for mercy. I was not ready to die.”
Her hope was subsequently raised during a consultation with Port Elizabeth haematologist Dr Neil Litttleton, who told her that there was a chance that a bone marrow transplant could save her life.
She continued to seek the Lord’s face in various ways and asked Him if it was His will for her to live or die. She said she kept on finding scriptures such as Psalm 118:17 and Psalm 61, that pointed toward life and she clung to those verses.
But one night after a discouraging conversation with somebody about her prognosis she was overcome by fear.
“It felt like fear came and sat on my chest and squeezed the life out of me. I saw no point in going to Cape Town for the transplant and said to my sister, I don’t know why God doesn’t just take me now.”
Nicolette’s sister Melanie Rass, who was later to donate bone marrow for her transplant, began to sing choruses that their father had taught them as children. After a while Nicolette opened her mouth to sing too: at first her voice was hoarse and she could not sing but gradually her voice improved and she sang freely.
“And after a while we were singing and praising God with one voice, and as we were singing this ‘thing’ that was sitting on my chest just lifted off.”
Spirit of fear broken
She realised that God had broken the spirit off fear over her and asked Him for a word to take with her to Cape Town, to help her make sense of what was happening.
Then God showed her that Psalm 60 was meant for her but she was initially confused by references to defeating Moab, Edom and Philistia — until she realised it was an assurance that God was going to take over her disease-riddled body and that her healing would come through defeating a series of foes in successive battles.
“And then I went knowing I would be healed. And my healing happened in exactly that way. It was not an easy thing. It was a difficult six months during which I was very ill. It was really a step-by-step process and I had no fear or of thoughts of death.”
Before going to Cape Town she and her sister fasted for two weeks as she asked God for specific scriptures to carry her through the various stages of the treatment. God faithfully provided her with specific verses which she sent to her friends and family so that they would know what scriptures to pray at every stage.
During the last day of the chemotherapy stage the hospital staff warned her that the treatment would feel like fire burning her. But the Lord had already given her an appropriate verse for that stage: Isaiah 43:2 — “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
During seven weeks in an isolation ward during which she could not read she said she sensed God’s presence throughout because her mind was filled with scriptures.
“And as I lay there believing God was in control I knew that the day I would claim my healing I could not be the same old person and that I would have to do something to help others.”
She recovered her health and opportunities to help others followed. She became a spokesman for the South African National Blood Services; and she counselled blood cancer patients, encouraging them to trust God for their healing. And then, after many discussions with Dr Littleton, about the fact that the Eastern Cape had the highest incidence of blood cancer in South Africa but had no haematology unit, she and Myron launched the Igazi Foundation in February 2010 to lobby the Eastern Cape Government to establish a haematology facility.
She said Eastern Cape health superintendent general Siva Pillay and health MEC (at that time) Phumulo Masualle were very supportive and in a short space of time the department came up with R20m to establish the unit in the Provincial Hospital. Igazi sent a group of nurses and cleaners to Pretoria for a month of specialised training. Local pharmaceutical companies contributed funds and they were also partnered by a university in Sweden. At the launch of the unit Switzerland’s Novo Nordisk Haemophilia Foundation announced that it would bolster the facility with a R1 million cash injection.
Nicolette said that unless the staff funding problem was resolved soon there was a risk that Novo Nordisks R1 million could be withdrawn.
But in the bigger picture she was greatful that the establishment of the unit had been so speedy. It was disappointing that the project had come to a standstill just weeks after the breakthrough launch.
“But we don’t want to give up in despair. We are praying that the Department Of Health will sort out its finances and issues so that they will be able to put thierr money where it is so badly needed. We hope and pray it will be done by September.”
In other battles already fought and won, Nicolette said prayer and standing on the promises of God to her in Psalm 60 had carried her through three bouts of serious illness and hospitalisation since her transplant and recovery.