FALL DOWN, FLY HIGH
When experienced paraglider JD Neill took off from Lion’s Head earlier this year, he had no idea he was about to suffer a near-fatal accident. But thanks to a dramatic mountain rescue and expert care at Mediclinic Cape Town, a miracle ensued.
The worst scenario for anyone who enjoys air sports is for their equipment to malfunction while airborne. This is what happened to JD Neill on 18 March this year when his paraglider collapsed 30 metres above the ground, causing him to immediately drop 20 metres. “The glider then tried to re-inflate, which slowed down the fall,” he recalls. “But because of the lack of airspeed and my attempt to avoid flying into the side of the mountain, it went into a spin, and I then fell the final 10 metres to the ground.”
After hitting the ground just below the busy footpath up to Lion’s Head peak, JD called out for help. “I had excruciating pain in my lower back and knew that I couldn’t move,” he says. With the help of a hiker, he contacted the Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR) Emergency Centre, which mobilised a rescue team. “Together with paramedics, they arrived on foot to stabilise me for the airlift,” he explains. He was then lifted off the mountain on a helicopter and taken to a waiting ambulance.
JD was rushed to the emergency room at Mediclinic Cape Town, where it was found that he’d fractured seven vertebrae. “This included L1, which was severely crushed and protruding into my spinal canal,” he says.
The L1 is a very sensitive area of the spinal cord, explains leading spine and orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ramanare Magampa, who took charge of the case. “At this level, bone fragments were pressing on the conus, which controls bladder and bowel function, and we needed to decompress the spinal cord in this specific area.”
After receiving pain medication, an MRI and X-rays, JD was placed under the care of Dr Magampa, who completed an extended fellowship with world-renowned spinal surgeon Professor Robert Dunn at Groote Schuur. After joining Mediclinic Cape Town in 2021, Dr Magampa set up a spine service at the hospital, which has been of immense value to patients like JD and has boosted Mediclinic Cape Town’s reputation for excellence in spinal surgery.
Dr Magampa still does voluntary community work at Groote Schuur, where he and Professor Dunn are the only two surgeons able to perform scoliosis surgery. He also continues to teach orthopaedic registrars and medical students.
“Dr Ramanare Magampa, the staff at Mediclinic Cape Town, and the WSAR rescue team not only saved my life, but also my way of life.”– JD Neill
“From the moment I met him I had no doubt that I was in the best hands,” JD says. “He explained the situation to me very clearly and outlined the possible outcomes and options. From the scans, it was clear that I needed surgery to stabilise my L1. He explained the risks but also gave me confidence that surgery was the best possible option to have any chance of recovery, and that he was the best person for the job.”
Dr Magampa says he knew immediately that he was dealing with an emergency case when he heard about JD’s fall. “The images confirmed that if we did not act fast with emergency surgical intervention, his condition would deteriorate. Spinal trauma has devastating effects, like paralysis, if managed incorrectly. Yet with the correct spine surgical techniques, for which we had good indications, we could drastically improve his prognosis and quality of life. The surgery itself was extremely complex and high risk because of the extent of his trauma, but we persevered and managed to stabilise and fix the spine.”
Rehabilitation and recovery
During his nine days in hospital, JD began to walk. “It was initially very difficult to move due to the pain, but it was made much easier by the competent and caring team that looked after me,” he says. He later moved to a step-down facility. Ongoing rehabilitation requires a multidisciplinary team approach, which includes a physiotherapist, occupational therapist, psychologist, urologist, neurologist and ongoing checkups with Dr Magampa.
JD’s recovery has been almost unbelievable, says Dr Magampa, which beyond the expert care he received, is testament to his character and competitive mindset. “I had to be able to pick up my children and play with them like I always had,” says JD. “I’ve also always lived an active lifestyle, which is a large part of who I am.”
Amazingly, he was able to pick up his two-year-old eight weeks after surgery and go mountain biking on Table Mountain after just 12 weeks. In August he paraglided for the first time since the accident. “Dr Magampa, the staff at Mediclinic Cape Town and the WSAR team not only saved my life, but also my way of life,” he says.
“Without their incredible talent, skills, training and professionalism I would not have had such a full recovery. My spinal cord injury means that I need to self-catheterise when urinating – due to the initial conus injury on impact – but that’s minor considering the severity of the injury. To be able to walk out of a step-down facility two weeks after a life-threatening accident and surgery is as close to a miracle as you can get. I will forever be grateful.”