As thick smoke filled the air from a raging fire, and approximately 4 000 University of Cape Town (UCT) students prepared to evacuate their residences, a group of Baxter Hall residence students stood by helplessly and watched while one of their peers struggled to breathe – fearing the onset of an asthma attack, but not knowing what to do.

“It was a terrifying experience. I couldn’t handle to watch it, and I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could,” said first-year political science and sociology student Lelona Jikijela.

But the moment fellow student Tatum Mentoor walked into the room – which Jikijela said was probably a few seconds later, but felt like hours to her – she knew “exactly what to do” to help the student.

‘A stressful situation’

When Mentoor stepped into the reading room and saw that the student was struggling to breathe, Jikijela said, she looked her straight in the eye and gave her strict but gentle instructions. Mentoor told the student to raise her arms above her head and to take several deep breaths.

Mentoor also told her to remain calm because stress and anxiety would aggravate her situation. She then gave her some water, and slowly, Jikijela said, the student’s breathing improved, and she started to look and feel better.


“I stood there in complete disbelief. Several highly stressful situations were taking place around us.”

“I stood there in complete disbelief. Several highly stressful situations were taking place around us – a huge fire and an evacuation, and one of my peers was having an asthma attack. It was so scary,” Jikijela said.

“But I was blown away by Tatum, how she just took control of the situation, calmed the student down, and got her breathing under control. She was such a natural – a real-life heroine.”

A simple act of kindness

For Mentoor’s part, she said that if it meant that she could help someone, she would do it all over again.

The second-year social work student, who is also asthmatic, said she knew her fellow student was headed for an asthma attack as soon as she saw her. And she kicked into survival mode immediately.

“I can’t even begin to describe the stress we were all under, and I knew the stress was causing [the asthma attack]. There was smoke everywhere. Because I’m asthmatic, I knew she was having an asthma attack, and I knew what to do to help her,” Mentoor said.

After the student completed the necessary breathing techniques and had taken a few puffs of her inhaler, her breathing began to normalise. She was also “a lot calmer”.

“When you’re having an asthma attack, you start to panic. And when panic sets in, no one can think straight. You just need to be calm and breathe, and that’s what I told her. I would do it for anyone,” she said.

Mentoor said that as the evacuees were moved from campus to temporary accommodation sites around the city, she remained in touch with the student to check on her. She was happy to hear that she was feeling herself again.

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