Helping patients overcome spinal cord injuries and giving them the hard truth about their life-changing injuries is what Groote Schuur Hospital does in its Acute Spinal Cord Injury (ASCI) Unit.
International Spinal Cord injury Awareness Day was marked yesterday, September 5. It aims to increase awareness about spine health and inclusivity for people with disabilities.
The ASCI unit has been more active in the past two months compared to the past two years as a result of more gunshot victims admitted to the unit. According to hospital spokesperson, Alaric Jacobs, the average percentage of gunshot victims has increased from 14% to 26% in the past.
Gunshot wounds and motor crashes cause what is known as high velocity spinal injuries which can result in severe injuries or paralysis.
Vian Hermanus, 37, is currently at the hospital in the ASCI unit going through rehabilitation after his near-fatal motor crash in July.
After his accident in Oudtshoorn, he suffered a neck dislocation, for which he was first required to undergo a closed reduction procedure at George Hospital, which aligns your neck using weights on either side of your head. These can weigh anywhere between 20 to 30kg.
He was transferred to Groote Schuur Hospital on August 22, where five days later, the ASCI unit performed an anterian cervical decompression and fusion and posterior cervical fusion operation. This is when the spinal cord is fixed in position using screws and a plate from the front and the back.
Dr Julliete Stander, medical officer at the spinal unit, said Mr Hermanus was making a remarkable recovery and should be able to walk again.
A very emotional Mr Hermanus said he missed his three children, Beone, Vernilee and Estonio, though he was grateful that his sister, Felicity Hermanus, managed to visit him from Oudtshoorn. While he is frustrated that he can’t do anything else for himself, he is grateful to the doctors for what they have done for him.
The ASCI, which was established at the hospital in 2003, accepts the most serious cases of spinal cord injuries in the Western Cape.
Dr Stander said spinal injuries could be caused by blunt object assault, sports injuries, falling, gunshots and high-speed motor crashes.
She said a patient could spend anywhere between two weeks to six months in the unit.
Breaking the news to patients about their injuries in a gentle and honest way was a challenge for doctors working in the ASCI, she added.
“We need to help the patient through frustration because they are lying here. They must get used to the fact that they are not able to walk or help themselves anymore.
“They experience a lot of losses – loss of jobs, loss of finance, loss of friends – and the family who visit also find it difficult to deal with the trauma,” said Dr Stander.
She said early intervention in spinal cord injuries could optimise the outcome.
Another patient who has experienced a spinal cord injury, which has resulted in him losing the feeling in his legs, has managed to use his experience to inspire many people going through similar experiences.
Ricardo Lodewyk, 41, from Cloetesville was a victim of a mugging during which he was shot in the neck 22 years ago. He went through a closed reduction procedure at Maitland Hospital which aligned his neck.
He spent six months in occupational therapy and physiotherapy. Now, he uses a wheelchair, which he says is “a part of him” and is his “friend”.
He plays an active role in the community as a disability peer supporter, running and organising support groups, assisting in recovery and rehabilitation for people with spinal injuries and he is active in sports and fitness.
He has been playing wheelchair rugby for Western Province for the past 14 years.
Mr Lodewyk’s wish is that more jobs should be made available for people with disabilities and that people become more aware of the wider community of people with disabilities.
Prevent spinal cord injuries:
Buckle up – transport-related injuries account for at least 26% of all traumatic spinal cord injuries in South Africa
Keep the floor clear of hazards that could lead to a fall. This is especially important for the elderly.
Never move someone who has a suspected spinal cord injury before emergency professionals have examined them, this could further damage the spinal cord.
Always wear a helmet and all safety gear when taking part in sport..
Inspect playground equipment; make sure it is intact before letting children play.
Before diving into a swimming pool, make sure there is enough water so that you do not hit the bottom of the pool.
Never push someone into a pool.