My story begins on a clear sunny morning on the 26th February 1990.
Ill begin by providing historical context
I matriculated in 1988 at Lyttleton manor high school in Lyttleton Pretoria. My school career can be mostly be described as a blur, topped with loud punk music, stovepipe jeans and studio line hair gel, as I tried emulating my music idol, Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols.
Like most young men coming straight from school in the eighties without a matric exemption, I was forcefully conscripted into the South African Defence force in 1989 where I served in the South African Airforce. The rebel in me wanted to run far away from the conservative hateful ideology of time, but my family had too many ties to the system, and so, I was shackled to a monster. I also did not want to spend three years in prison, as it was compulsory for all men to serve their country at the time.
Near the end of 1989, I knew that I was not going to join the permanent force like my father and brother did, and realised that I needed to study something, anything would do at the time. My dad offered to pay for me to see an industrial psychologist. After a long day of draining my brain, the psychologist gave me a pack of notes and career recommendations.
I paged through the notes and found some information that perked my interest. After having a chat with my dad, a week later he went to the Technikon in Pretoria and collected course material and information brochures for a course called Medical Orthotics and Prosthetics. I found the information highly intriguing and knew that I would enjoy making legs and arms for people as one of my favourite subjects at school was Art, specifically sculpture, it was the only subject that I received an award for, namely the best sculpture award.
The next few months flew by, but I had a renewed interest in life. December vacation came and went, before I knew it, I was back at the Movements Squad at Swartkops Airforce base.
It was like any other day, not too cold, but crisp 6:30am. Weekend pass was over, and I took a last drag of my cigarette, nipped the bud for later to carry on smoking until the tuck shop opened at the base. I straddled my Suzuki 400, kicked up the stand, kick started the machine and headed out towards the Old Johannesburg Road, the normal route I took every morning.
Not much went through my mind, besides knowing that I was not happy to report for duty. It was not uncommon for me to have feelings of hopelessness as I drove towards the Airforce base after a weekend pass.
Traffic was normally busy in the morning. I kept my distance from the cars as I headed towards the Old Krugersdorp intersection. In an instant, less time that it would take to blink, a Bus turned in front of me. I had no time to break and decided to rather jump off the bike before impact. It didn’t do me much good as I slammed into the front of the bus, my momentum being carried with the bike.
The next thing I remember was looking up at the sky, I turned to my side and noticed that my foot was lying quite close to my head on the right side and I though to myself, “where the heck is my shoe” I had my socks on, but no shoe. The driver behind me, came to my aid and held me down on the road as I tried to get up. My left arm was broken just above the elbow, so I was unable to lift myself off the tar mack.
I must have blacked out for a few minutes, as the next thing that I remembered was the paramedics speaking to me. I heard them say “We are going to straighten out your legs and put you onto a board” It was then that the pain hit and I realised that something really bad had happened to me and that I might die where I lay. The smell of blood is not something you can easily forget , especially that amount of much blood. My femoral artery had been severed on my right leg and I was leaking a cup of blood with every beat of my heart.
I remember speaking to the army medic in the ambulance on the way to the military hospital (1 Mil), it was a short drive to the hospital. When we arrived in the casualty department, they wheeled me straight into the recovery room. When the bright lights came on, my lights went out.
I woke up 2 days later in ICU, my mom and dad standing beside my bed. I had no idea how injured I was, or where I was. My dad took my right hand and held onto it very tightly, I looked at him and saw the tears in his eyes. I also began to tear up as he told me that they had to amputate my leg above the knee and that my left leg and left arm was also broken. I was unable to speak and realised that my top jaw was wired to my lower jaw as I had also broken my jaw, swallowing a few molars process.
The next few days I was in and out of consciousness, until they transferred me to a normal ward. I remember my girlfriend (Now my wife, married for 29years) bringing me a Walkman tape deck, with all the songs I liked. I listened to the tape over and over again for 2 days. While listening to Phil Collins “I wish it would rain down” I realised I couldn’t breathe. I was rushed back to the ICU and that was where the fight for my life began.
It was a Monday morning and I had been in the hospital for 5 or 6 days, I was moved to ICU and immediately hooked onto a ventilator, for me to continue breathing. My body had gone through immense trauma and receiving 9 pints of blood and plasma did not help the situation. My kidneys began to shut down, next was my liver as I turned a bright yellow, contrasting against the white sheets. I then contracted septicaemia and double pneumonia.
My parents were called in and the doctors told them that they should prepare for the worst and that there was a strong possibility that I probably will not make it through the night. The next 24 hours must have been dreadful for my family, as I wrestled with the reaper.
By Tuesday afternoon the doctors told my parents that I had improved ever so slightly, indicating no gap between his thumb and index finger. A single photon of light appeared at the end of the tunnel.
For the next 3 weeks I was heavily sedated but was able to breath by myself after 2 weeks on the ventilator. I was a bag of bones, as my nutrition was being pipped straight into my subclavian vein and every imaginable needle in my left foot and arms.
After a failed attempt to insert the needle into the subclavian vein, they unintentionally punctured my left lung which instantly began deflating, which then had to be pumped back up with the help of an emergency haemothorax procedure, where they cut a hole onto the side of my chest and insert a pipe straight into the lung. The lung is then able to inflate again when I take a breath.
Because my jaw was wired shut, I was unable to eat, so they inserted a feeding tube through my nose into my stomach. I remember the drama one evening, when, in my confused state, I pulled on the irritating tube that I thought was only stuck in my nose. I began pulling on the tube and felt my stomach heave and my throat constrict, but I kept pulling and pulling on what looked like a long brown slimy worm. The medical staff freaked out and wanted me to reinsert the pipe. I refused to do so, and they warned me that if I do not get enough nutrients, they would forcefully insert the pipe themselves, whether I wanted it or not.
After that incident, I had to immediately start drinking a disgusting concoction that made me wish I never removed the feeding tube. They had to remove a tooth on the bottom row of my jaw so that I could insert a straw into my mouth. I drank the disgusting witches brew for another 3 weeks, until the very smell made me gag. I was able to switch to Ensure, which was slightly more palatable, but by no means tasty.
It seemed that time had stood still as I had no sense of day or night, it was difficult to differentiate between the light coming though the window or was it the light from the fluorescent bulbs. The days turned into weeks.
I was finally transferred from ICU to the septic ward. The septic ward was where they transferred patients that had serious infections, sepsis or gangrene. My stump had a small hole that was leaking a yellow fluid that smelt rancid. Every morning after breakfast the nurse came to see me with a massive syringe and a tube attached. He would insert the tube into the hole and inject pure hydrogen peroxide. It would boil and bubble a bit as the Hydrogen Peroxide did its job. The pain was excruciating, but soon subsided after the warm embrace of a morphine injection. I watched as my wounds healed day after day.
A few days later, I was asked to chat to chap who refused to sign a waiver to have a life saving amputation after an army truck had driven over his legs. . When I wheeled my wheelchair, albeit with my right arm only, swinging from side to side, zigzagging down the ward passage, I immediately smelt that something was off. Compared to when you drive over roadkill and your car becomes permeated with the smell of rotting flesh. When I eventually confronted him, and looking into his eyes I knew that I was not able to convince him. We spoke and joked a bit about the crappy situation we found ourselves in. I did try to convince him that life does not end when you loose a limb.
He stubbornly told me that he would rather die than have his legs amputated. His wish came true 3 days later as he slipped into septic shock and passed away before the sun rose the next day. The reality of death had made me that much more determined to get out of the hospital and live my life.
My first outing was to the Orthotist Prosthetist Lourence Deviliers, he was also doing his army training after his studies and was based at the Old Military hospital. The military had their own orthotics and Prosthetics department which was well kitted for rehabilitation. I had to begin the coning process which I would continue doing while serving my remaining time in the defence force, commuting between my parents house and the hospital.
I remember one morning before I was discharged for leave for the weekend pass, the ward matron walked into my room and told me that I needed to get a haircut. I amused at the order and told her that I have more important things to do than get a haircut as I am dealing with my leg being cut off, the last thing on my mind was to take orders and cut my hair. When I came back from my leave, they wanted to charge me with insubordination and absconding from duty. According to the military, I had not got permission to go on leave. Lucky my dad was pretty high up in the military and spoke to them about where I was and that they should drop the charges against me. There was never a dull moment while I was in the defence force, my resentment towards them ever growing until the day I was discharged.
My last day in the defence force was on the 31st July 1990. It was a day to be celebrated, I could go home and never to return to the hell hole ever again.
Taking stock of what had happened to me on that fateful day;
Right leg amputated above the knee, leaving me with a 10cm femoral stump. Examining my x-rays you can clearly see, the femur and then where my knee used to be, you see speckles of white, with the surgeon explaining to me at a later stage that he was unable to save my leg, because the bone had turned into cornflakes.
My left femur was also fractured in a spiral formation and split down the middle requiring an internal fixator. My left arm subjected to a humeral fracture with internal fixator, Fractured jaw, hairline skull fracture. I survived organ failure, double pneumonia and septicaemia.
I was alive.
What I did with this life
I was disappointed after receiving my first prosthetic leg, it felt cumbersome, heavy and mechanical in nature. I had to make it move, due to my short residual limb (Stump) it was not easy to move the prosthesis forward. I was also told that I should have to learn to tolerate the pain I felt from the “seat” area of the prosthetic socket as my weight bearing point was under the ischium (Bum bone). I could not accept the fact that a prosthetic leg should be so uncomfortable to walk with.
It was then that I decided that I will make myself a prosthetic leg one day.
In October 1990 I applied and was accepted to the Orthotic and Prosthetic course at the Technikon in Pretoria (Those days the course was a higher diploma, it’s a degree at present). It was 3 years of studies and 1 year of internship. The first time I attended the varsity after being accepted to the course, I was not wearing my prosthetic leg. In fact, I attended all my classes only using crutches. Once or twice, I felt it necessary to make an appearance using my prosthetic leg, but I ambulated much faster with my crutches.
I remember my fellow students not understanding why I did not wear my prosthetic leg. I would tell them that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone (My rebel yell) and that my prosthetic leg was cumbersome. Some of my friends could not accept this fact and felt that I should be wearing my prosthesis every day. I think it made them feel uncomfortable, but little did they know that this was my modus operandi, to not follow the rules, regulation and ideologies of man-made ideas of who to be, what to think or say.
When I eventually did my internship at H.F Verwoerd hospital in 1993, I began using my new prosthetic leg, albeit with the use of my crutches. I began consulting patients and did so with my crutches and prosthesis, I was not going to let anything stop me. I qualified in 1994 and started working for the hospital in 1995.
I attended clinics and consulted with many amputees, and it was during this time that I learnt to manufacture precisely and worked efficiently. The bureaucracy and mind-numbing monotony of the government department began to wear me thin. I despised people telling me what to do and how to do it. The urge to be a private practitioner was on my mind day after day. I was married at that time, 24 years old and wanted a change. I knew that if I try and go out on my own it would be very difficult, but there were others who were also daring to start a practice.
We were young and had nothing to lose. At the end of 1995, my friend Wolfgang Uken, who studied with me, was working for Goldings Orthopaedic centre in Pretoria. He was asked by his boss, Mr Harold Golding to open an Orthotics and Prosthetic centre in Durban. He came down to Durban and when he came back from his trip, I asked him when was he going to move to Durban. He told me that Mr Golding didn’t want to continue with the move, I knew the reason for him not leaving Pretoria and that was because Mr Golding didn’t want to lose his best worker. I asked Wolf one evening at poker, why don’t we both go down to Durban and see if the two of us can start a business.
In early October of 1996, Wolf and I drove down to Durban for a recognisance mission, to see where we would open our company, if we ever had to make the move to Durban. A business premises that looked promising was Westville.
ProPaedic is born.
On the 1st of November I handed in my resignation and on the 1st of December, Wolf and I drove down to Durban to set up our new business. We had 2 cars, his bright blue “Slap” Audi turbo and my “Sharkey” coloured ford Safire towing a trailer full of machines and some stock items. We were brave and at the time, may have seemed to be a bit stupid.
In a macabre serendipitist twist, we both, Wolf and I had been in a motorbike accident, his accident was when he was 17 years old, a bus also crashed into him, head on, breaking his femur, but luckily not too seriously. We were both on a path that was originated and assisted by money paid out by the road accident fund. We used this money to start our business.
We were moving at a rapid pace and making waves in Durban as we opened our second branch 6 months after we opened our practice in Westville and 5 years later opened our 3rd branch in Chelmsford opposite the St Augustine’s Hospital. We continued with our partnership for 20 years.
In 2016, I was itching to try something new and wanted to manufacture a prosthetic socket using 3D printing Additive manufacturing. I began working with a team of designers and academics at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) to figure out how to manufacture an adjustable prosthetic socket (Proof of concept) and collaborated with the university to write a published research article.
I then applied and received a research grant through the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and began the research and manufacturing a workable adjustable prosthetic socket.
Through fate or destiny, I accepted a temporary lecturer’s position at Durban University Of Technology in 2017, as the grant was to be administered by the university of my choice. I was still a business partner at the time, but Wolf and I decided that we will call it quits and move on with our lives. After 20 years of partnership our combined vision became stale, but we wanted to remain friends. We dissolved ProPaedic and remained friends.
A lecturer is born
I then became involved with the university full time basis until the end of 2019.
The months flew by and before I knew it, I was spiralling into academia, with all its frustrating red tape and bureaucracy. For the first time in 20 years I had a boss, and while I can’t compare one boss to other, what I learnt is that I do not do well with being told what to do. My open display of independence, “sideways” thinking and disregard for the institutional “rules”, did not sit well with management (They found my Sid Vicious). I was not going to participate in the insanity and decided to resign at the end of 2019.
Mobility Assist is born
I signed my lease on the 1st March 2020, and 4 days later I couldn’t taste my wine. I turns out that I was infected with the 1st wave of the Corona virus. I initially thought I had Cancer and decided that I would only tell my wife after the brain scans. Lucky, it was only a bit of Bat flu.
2020 was a crazy year, I just started my practice again after 3 years in academia, I was facing unknown territory as this would be the first time I attempt to do business without a business partner, I won’t lie, it shook my confidence a bit as I was not sure if I could do it on my own. I suppose not having a leg made it harder for me, but I was never known to raise a white flag, I’m more of “die with my boots on” kind of guy.
In 2021, Wolf came to my office for a cup of coffee and told me that he was going to emigrate to New Zealand. On the one hand I was sad to say goodbye, but I knew that this would be my best chance of surviving a new business in extremely difficult circumstances.
We now enter 2023 and I am still in business after a triple whammy, Covid, Violent striking and massive flooding in Kwa Zulu Natal. With many days of complete lock-down and not being able to earn a cent, I am alive and, on my way, to thrive.
October 2023 was the first month at my new business premises in Shop 1, Kensington Square, my dream of opening my practice in a retail space has been fulfilled.
In conclusion, I would like to thank my Wife, Vicky for her love and support and deep appreciation to all my clients and doctors that keep the doors open at Mobility Assist. I will continue to help others in need until the day I am unable to open my hands.
From my heart to yours