BACK TO LIFE AFTER A SPINAL CORD INJURY
Husband. Business owner. Paraplegic. With expert care, and a lot of hard work, Le Roux Meyer is making sure his wheelchair is only part of his story.
“The accident itself? I don’t know 100% for sure. What I remember is waking up. I was face down in the bush, on the side of the mountain. I was thinking, ‘I’m going to be lying here for a long time. Let me just call up my friend; maybe he’ll hear me’. And he said later, it didn’t sound anything like he had heard before… I sounded like an animal being shot.”
Le Roux Meyer is a very active person. Not content with the physical work required in his day job as the owner-operator of a residential construction company in Pretoria, he also spends as much time as he can on the move, outdoors – fishing, hunting, cycling – you name it, he’s done it.
But for the past 10 years, nothing has compared to the thrill of adventure motorcycling – Botswana, bottom to top, twice; from Cape Town to Jeffreys Bay in a single day – he and his friends would head out in search of the best sights and sounds two wheels can buy.
Until November 2020. On a winding pass between Knysna and George, in the Western Cape, he went over a cliff. It was a moment that would change his life forever.
“The extraction went pretty quickly,” Le Roux remembers. “There were a lot of people on the scene: ER24, search and rescue, even a field ranger. And there was an older lady, who had been a nurse. When she heard what happened, she told my friend, ‘Whatever you do, don’t move him.’”
Le Roux was taken to Mediclinic George, where doctors examined him, and found he’d suffered multiple broken bones in his chest and back area. The hospital notified his wife and brother, who flew down to be at his bedside – where they received alarming news.
“I only found out later,” he says. “They told my wife first. To put it simply, my vertebrae exploded in my back. The shards of the bone missed my spinal artery by millimetres – but they cut up my spinal cord quite badly. My friends were watching from afar as my wife was talking to the doctors, and they said they saw her just fall down. That’s when they knew it was very serious.”
Usually, the spinal cord acts as a high-tech power cable, transferring messages from the brain to parts of the body. Damage to the spinal cord can either reduce the effectiveness of those messages or cut them off completely.
An incomplete spinal cord injury, for example, caused by bruising or shock, can cause a temporary loss of sensation in the hands or feet. If all feeling and ability to control motor function below the site of the spinal cord injury is lost, however, the injury is known as complete.
Le Roux spent a week in intensive care, followed by another week post-surgery to stop the bleeding and stabilise the area. He was then airlifted in a fixed-wing air hospital back home to Pretoria, where he was admitted to Mediclinic Muelmed to begin his rehabilitation journey.
Here, the hard work began.
“From the first time we meet a patient, we begin an assessment,” says Melanie Harding at Mediclinic Muelmed’s Rehabilitation Centre. “This is a lot more than a physical examination. Where do they come from, what do they do for a living, what are the things they’re passionate about? It’s important because rehabilitation is about getting you back to where you were before.”
This takes a team. “Nurses, doctors, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists – each patient is treated by a group of specialists. Together, we take what we’ve got, and we make the most of it.”
Injuries to Le Roux’s thoracic vertebrae left him a T6 complete: he had severed his spinal cord in the middle of his back, but even though he’s now unable to feel or move his legs, his sensation and strength from his chest down are only slightly affected.
“It was at Mediclinic Muelmed that it really all started to hit me,” he says. “I was being moved off painkillers, back into reality – and now I was having to relearn how to do basic things. They help you adapt towards your new lifestyle. For example, how do you turn to your side? You know, that’s normally something that you don’t think about; you just basically do a crunch and move forward. Well, I can’t do that anymore.”
Le Roux had a lot of life to get back to. His loving wife, his hyperactive dog, a flourishing construction business. Step one: acceptance.
“They taught me a lot of stabilisation techniques: moving, sitting upright, balancing, it’s all new now. Fundamentally, what they’re teaching is accepting this new way of life. But they also know I can’t just accept [it] and then do nothing from there. So how do I adapt?”
“It was at Mediclinic Muelmed that it really all started to hit me. I was being moved off painkillers, back into reality – and now I was having to relearn how to do basic things.”Le Roux Meyer
Confidence is crucial, says Harding. “Here at the rehabilitation centre, we try to replicate what our patients will face in the real world as closely as possible – cooking in the kitchen, using the bathroom, going to the gym. These are small things to many people, sure, but in the rehabilitation journey, they are crucial. Mastering these things helps our patients move forward into their new lives with purpose and some positivity.”
Typically, patients with paraplegia spend six to eight weeks in an intensive training programme, living in the rehabilitation centre and working with doctors and staff daily. That’s a very short time, Harding says. “We have to cram in a whole lot of information and hands-on learning. How to use their new body in a new way, and how to carry on by themselves. It’s part of a growing process.”
Le Roux is growing into his new life. Having put a great deal of work into his own home, ensuring it is truly paraplegic-friendly, he is now active on site every day, and back in the gym.
“I was very determined,” he says. “In the ICU, I had lost a lot of weight. I was lying in bed for two weeks, not eating; I lost a lot of strength. Melanie has experience with people like me. She has taught a lot of people to walk again.”
The secret to his success, says Harding, is his motivation. “You need to have a vision. No one really knows what a paraplegic can do, and each paraplegic has different possibilities. So, if I can give him a picture of where he can aim for – what the best-case scenario looks like – and if he’s ready to go there, we can achieve amazing success.”
Seeing Le Roux thrive in his new lifestyle is rewarding, Harding says. “It’s incredible. To see a guy come in here absolutely broken, not able to do a thing, and at the end of rehabilitation, with the full team’s work, we can get him back to life – working, going to gym, doing all the things he loves to do. It is amazing.”