Thursday, 6th June, 1990. On this day, everything I thought my life would be – my hopes, my dreams, my plans … everything, changed. At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, while preparing for the world Championships of trampoline gymnastics, I had an accident that left me a C4 complete quadriplegic. In an instant, feeling only a click in my neck, and a bolt of lightning going through my body, I lost the use of my arms and my legs. It is a day that I will never forget, as long as I live.
I do not often speak about this event in my life. It happened in an instant, yet it changed my life forever. I remember myself saying, I don't want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair! Of course, I had no idea what living with this form of disability would mean. The only thing I remember was being scared. An ambulance was on the scene shortly after, and a batch of x-rays confirmed that which I already knew. I had suffered a cervical dislocation of the fourth vertebra in my neck. It was now a race against time to repair the damage and hope and pray that the operation could been done in time to allow me to retain my ability to walk.
Somewhere in the transit between Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, I lost consciousness. I awoke on Saturday, two days after my accident, to be told that I was on a ventilator that it was breathing in my stead. I was told that I had been to theatre twice during the time between my accident and my regaining consciousness, and that more than likely, I would never walk again. Of course, the final prognosis would be made by the surgeons at Conradie Hospital in Cape Town but, judging by what the original neurosurgeon could observe, this was his estimation.
Something like a spinal-cord injury doesn't only affect the person it happens to. It affects everyone in your family, as well as your friends. From the moment I opened my eyes, I remember my mother being at my bedside. Of course, she was not the only one, but at that point she was the one who mattered most to me. My mother had planned a weekend away in the lowveld at a bush lodge – Sabi Sabi. She had arrived there to the news that her eldest son had broken his neck on a trampoline and that doctors were not sure if he would live. After a four hour drive, she got back in the car and did the return trip as fast as she possibly could. She was on a plane that very same night, all the while praying to God to spare her son, even if she only retained 10 percent of him. She landed in Port Elizabeth the next morning.
The following 10 days in ICU showed me how much I was loved by people I barely knew, people I had always assumed had never given me a second thought. The outpouring of prayers and well wishes was overwhelming. It was at that stage that I began to form an appreciation of little things, token gestures by people who I didn't know from a bar of soap yet shown to me with so much kindness. Doctors. Nurses. Friends. And, of course, my family.
The next chapter in my journey saw me loaded into a plane, a turboprop Piper if memory serves, restrained and trussed up on a gurney for the two hour duration of the flight to Cape Town. It was like hell. I remember being so hot. It felt as though I would pass out at any moment. I couldn't move anything, and every breath I took was like inhaling the air from inside an oven. I remember watching one of the EMTs who accompanied me drinking from a can of Coke and thinking to myself, if there was anything that anyone could do that I would label cruel in the extreme, it was this. Apparently, these people aren't trained to be empathetic or compassionate, at least not to the degree of putting themselves in my position. Then again, if I had to be honest, nothing could have prepared me for what I went through.
I spent the next five months of my life in Conradie Hospital in Cape Town, undergoing rehabilitation. Each day, I was taken for physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and, all the while, I had tutors coming to see me in an attempt to keep me up to date with my schoolwork. Apparently, almost dying wasn't a good enough reason to give myself time off from academics. It took me about six weeks to get used to the idea of life in a wheelchair. Ironically, considering all the other challenges one faces when having had a spinal-cord injury, the wheelchair was the least of my concerns. I had to get used to living with an indwelling catheter, training my bowel for predictability, and getting over petty dignity issues regarding being naked in front of dozens of healthcare professionals on a daily basis.
After a few months, the hospital staff gave my parents permission to start taking me out on excursions. We went out for meals, we visited friends, and all the while, my first impression was how uncomfortable many people seemed to be, looking at me. It soon became apparent that, if I was going to win this war, I would have to find a way to make people at ease when meeting me. People, it turns out, are fearful of things they don't understand. And how could they? After all, I only made peace with the idea of life in a wheelchair after having had it imposed on me.
It is easy to imagine that going home after spending so much time in such a sheltered environment such as a hospital could be a daunting prospect. At home, you certainly don't have the team of merry maids who see to your every need while you are busy doing rehabilitation. You certainly don't have all the gadgets and gizmos that they used to get you to your ultimate level of functionability again. All you have is your family and, in my case, an unfamiliar new surrounding. My parents did their level best to see to my needs during the first while after my homecoming but, it soon became apparent that turning me every three hours while in bed, or lifting me every 30 minutes while I was seated in my chair to avoid pressure ulcers was taking its toll.
And so it was that I got my first assistant – William. We became known as William and William incorporated. This man, it turned out, was an ex convict, a fact he wasn't exactly keen to share initially, but which he came clean about eventually. He had spent time in prison in Namibia, of all places, for robbing a bank and stealing a car. William was larger than life, and exactly what I needed at a time when my life, going forward, was very uncertain. For the next two – three years, we went and painted the town red at every opportunity we got. In the beginning, William moved in with his wife, but his proclivity to chase after skirt meant that this did not last. From the time that we met to the time when my mother decided she had finally reached the end of her tether with him, he had had a number of girlfriends leave their mark on our happy home. I think the final straw was when, on a certain Sunday morning, she entered her kitchen to find a young twenty something in a T-shirt and panties in front of her stove, making breakfast, and being met with the enquiry of, who are you? Yeah, that was William.
People often tell me what an inspiration I am, or tell me how they are blown away by how strong I am. It has always made me feel rather uncomfortable to be edified in this way for doing nothing more than drawing breath. However, after all these years, I get it. People look at me and ask themselves how they would have coped if it had been them or someone they cared about instead of the person in front of them. People ask me how it is that I'm not bitter at God, or my gymnastics coach at the time, or certain people who initially turned their backs on me, denying my existence to their friends.
The answer is simple – I draw my strength from God everyday. I claim the promises of 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says …
No trial has taken you but such as follows the nature of man. But God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tried above your strength, but will in the midst of the trial make a way to escape out.
I believe that God is with me every day, giving me comfort, giving me strength, and allowing me to be my own best version. I am not saying that it is easy. What I am saying is that I am grateful, grateful that I did not become my father, grateful that my life has been filled with blessings beyond my wildest dreams, and grateful that, in the place where I find myself, I have found purpose and meaning. God saved my life the day I broke my neck. On that day, I became aware of those things in life that were truly important. I will be forever grateful to God for what he has meant to me. In this moment, writing this piece, I know what love is. And I know that I have been loved.