Angel on a red tricycle.

“Rules are there for a reason!”

We witnessed the standoff between the matron and the professor. Their noses were inches apart—neither willing to concede.

The audacious act of breaking hospital policies for a noble purpose—bringing a tricycle into the intensive care unit—was only surpassed by the unit manager’s sour demeanor, her body language clearly proclaiming: we are not amused, neither convinced. However, Professor Ben’s resolve was equally strong; his philosophy was simple: do the right thing and ask forgiveness later.

He refused to remove the still-wrapped-up three-wheeler from the ICU. To appease the matron and fulfill the letter of the law, it was wiped down several times with a soaked in anti-septic cloth as it was unwrapped. If the tricycle ever had a chest, it was pushing it out far, for the matron to see, proclaiming its honorable mission.

Andrea was four years old when she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. The symmetrical paralysis crept up her little body—soon, it made her come and live in the intensive care unit where we looked after her. She would go into remission—as sufferers of this rare condition, which is probably caused by a viral infection, often do. But, then she relapsed again—several times: becoming unable to breathe and protect her own airway—necessitating, once again, assistance with a ventilator.

Once in remission—she was a ray of life on the unit, a gamboling bundle of zest. In defense of the professor’s breach of protocol: the 3-wheeler was Andrea’s idea—her clandestine request. She would pedal it around the large isolation room of the ICU with its glass-partitioned walls. The isolation was necessary since her immune system was suppressed and compromised—she often had to be kept separate from the other patients and visitors.

During the day the nurses always pulled the curtains apart, making it possible to see her frolicking in circles with the tricycle—but it was especially for her benefit—to enable her to at least see us. She always waved with exhilaration, calling out with delight as she rode faster in intricate loops.

Soon she became the resident angel of the unit.

Everyone working in the hospital, literally everyone: from the superintendent (nowadays called CEO and president) to the soon not-so-sour-anymore matron, the professors, other doctors, nurses, students, therapists, technicians to the most junior house-keeping personnel—got to know about Andrea, about her effervescent spirit. They would oft pause at the door—observing for a few seconds—enthralled, to be part in some small way, of the lionhearted child. They wanted to see for themselves, the angel on the red tricycle. Each one whose path she crossed, was touched—her direct manner and stalwart faith, rubbed off in generous helpings. We were eyewitnesses of how career agnostics and scoffers mellowed in the presence of such unassuming authenticity.

During one of her more serious relapses—as the insidious muscle weakness again stole upon her—she required a special intravenous catheter: a central line. It had to be inserted below her collarbone in a sterile fashion, with local freezing, but, while she was awake.

Having gone through this before, she looked the unit-head steadfast in the eyes, saying, “Professor, moenie bang wees nie. Ek het vir liewe Jesus gevra dat hy jou sal help met die aar–omdat ek so klein is. Don’t be afraid, Professor. I have asked Jesus to help you find the vein—that you won’t have to struggle because I’m so tiny.”

The central line went in without any difficulty.

Andrea lived in the ICU for many months. She became part of the unit-family.

She relapsed again—this time, she would not recover. The disease wrecked havoc with her autonomous nervous system, causing the frail physiology to succumb, unable to thwart the final pernicious attack.

The following morning the curtains were pulled wide apart as usual—as was done every day. But it was different—there was no movement beyond the glass walls. The isolation room held its breath—it was silent—now without its longtime inhabitant. The bed was freshly made—now empty. The boisterous laughs and giggles were absent. The solitary tricycle stood parked in the middle of the glaring floor. It had been wiped down that morning. Rules are there for a reason.

I watched as a nurse stepped closer, pressing her nose against the glass—then pressed harder—but it remained true: the little angel wasn’t there. I looked anew: it was a red monument on three wheels—vestige to a little warrior, a token of a brave soul—who had honored us, humbled us, with her brief presence. For so many months we were blessed, had we witnessed unadulterated joie de vivre—gifts bestowed by a five-year-old whose spirit remained unbreakable.

The tricycle’s little rider couldn’t wait any longer—she had gone ahead of us.