The resilience of youth

I was lying on my back. All I could move was my right arm and my eyes, lips and toes. The rest of my body was entombed in a thick, plaster cast that enclosed me like a cocoon. One leg and part of the other was also free, but due to paralysis they had no l

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I was lying on my back. All I could move was my right arm and my eyes, lips and toes. The rest of my body was entombed in a thick, plaster cast that enclosed me like a cocoon. One leg and part of the other was also free, but due to paralysis they had no life of their own. Under the plaster were two layers – one of felt and the other of thick cotton wool.

It was January and the city of roses was in the grip of a mid-summer heat wave. I was lying in the hot, prefab orthopedic ward of the Bloemfontein National Hospital. If you had wanted any kind of confession from me, it would have been the right type of torture, but half the time I wouldn’t have responded – having passed out from the heat. How I didn’t die of heat exhaustion is some kind of a miracle. Cranking my eyes as far as they would go to the left, I could see a piece of sky through the corner of a window. On the other side I could just manage to see the door and a portion of the passage.

At intervals nurses in stiff, white uniforms floated silently past the door. Twice a day, waves of visitors floated in and out. Some stopped to offer words of sympathy, but I paid no attention. I was stone deaf. The plaster and cotton wool covered both my ears so tightly, the only sounds I could hear, besides the throbbing of my heart, were the chewing sound I made when they fed me and the muffled sound of my own voice. Eventually the soundproofing got too much and my father, who made the long trek from Pretoria almost every weekend, brought a hand drill and drilled two ear holes so we could talk. Months later, the plaster around my head was removed so my hair could be cut.

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I was only 17 and since early childhood I had been an outdoors and field sportsperson. I had spent my time in the veld with birds, insects, lizards and snakes. To be able to hear the familiar bird calls, especially the dikkops and plovers at night – when the pain and discomfort made sleep impossible – kept my hope alive for the day I would be free and in the veld again. Lying like a living mummy for over a month, had worn me down. I kept telling myself I would live through the ordeal. I had no choice. Polio had caused a hunchback with a life-threatening 90° kink in my spine. It had started to compress my heart and other internal organs. Unless rectified, my life would have been short. My only option was to persevere while being prepared for an operation to straighten my spine – the first of its kind ever in SA.

The miracle

The plaster body suit in which I was encased, was split at the waist. It had a hinge on one side and a bottle-screw on the other. Each day the doctor gave it half-a-turn to gradually straighten my spine. After a few months I was to be ready for what a half-a-century ago was considered a miracle operation. The idea was that my mother and I would simultaneously undergo surgery. A 25cm length of her shin bone would be removed and implanted into my back. There it would hopefully knit and keep my spine more or less straight for the rest of my life, which it miraculously did. For weeks it was front-page news and the president even paid me a visit. What we didn’t know was that I was going to be entombed like that for a full year before I would be ready for the operation.

I had to find ways to not go insane. First I found a way to move myself – I lay crossways over the bed and rolled like a log. I was able to lie on my belly and play chess, read books or make drawings of birds, wild animals and fishing scenes, on a box standing on the floor. The sketches took my thoughts to wild places, a marvelous escape from the harsh reality.

By June the freezing cold of the Free State had started to creep into my bones. My plaster cocoon turned into an icebox. As if preparing for hibernation, my digestion slowed, slowing my body’s heat-generation. No amount of blankets helped and a friend travelling abroad brought me one of the first electric blankets ever seen over here. But it heated only my exposed limbs. A hole was cut over my stomach to heat my innards, but it didn’t help much. Despite medication, pressure sores started to go septic inside the plaster, indicating my deteriorating mental and physical states. It was decided to send me home for a while.

The railways sponsored my transfer, newspaper placards announced my departure and a siren-blaring police escort led the ambulance to the station where it was discovered my spread-eagled body wouldn’t fit through any door of the waiting train. Like a piece of bulky furniture they were able to only just squeeze me through a window. The break was all I needed and I returned with renewed mental toughness.

But, as someone fascinated by nature, I had to find a lifeline to the natural world. Like Noah in his Ark, it came in the form of a dove, actually a pigeon, and in the form of a little puppy dog smuggled into the hospital in the pocket of a sympathetic doctor’s white coat. It’s not surprising dogs and those seemingly soft-natured birds – symbols of peace – have played significant roles in my life henceforth. In future articles I will spend some time on them.

Although it demanded the resilience of youth, without strength from above and the care and support of my father and the loving sacrifice of my mother, who for a second time gave me the gift of life, I would not have made it through the most demanding and gruelling ordeal of my life. Like a butterfly I emerged from my cocoon physically fragile, but mentally robust, convinced life was a short, undeserved gift to be lived to the full. That enabled me to follow, against all, an action-packed outdoors career and exciting field sports interests that many able-bodied souls only dream of. – Abré J Steyn.
Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected]. Skype Name: abrejsteyn.

Mothers’ shin to be implanted into the back of her polio son

A mother from Lyttelton will donate a portion of her shin bone to enable her son to be healed after 15 years. Mrs M Steyn from Churchill Avenue, Lyttelton, will sacrifice a portion of the bone below her knee to enable surgeons to operate on her 17-year-old son Abré, a polio victim since his second year. Due to the polio, Abré’s spine had been deformed into a complete “S” shape. He is currently lying in the National Hospital in Bloemfontein, encased in a full-length plaster-of-paris cast, divided at the midrib with adjustment screws to enable his spine to be progressively straightened. Within the next two weeks surgeons will perform simultaneous operations on him and his mother. A portion of his mother’s shin bone will be transplanted into his spine to prevent renewed deformation. Abré, who is currently in Standard 10, passes his time in hospital by sketching. His mother says they can only admire his courage and pluck. He must lie in an extremely uncomfortable position while enduring excruciating pain, but you never hear him complaining. Fellow patients in the hospital can’t stop talking about his cheerful nature. In spite of his unfortunate situation, he is continually trying to encourage and support other patients. Mrs Steyn says she knows exactly how he must feel. Since birth she has had one arm. Her friends say that she stands back to nobody. She drives her own car daily and has made her mark as a formidable swimmer, netball player and tennis player. She also has wide social interests. One and all in the neighbourhood where she lives consider her the heroine of Lyttelton.