Possibilities beyond spine injury

Brenton Swartz has been quadreplegic since he was 15.

In 1984 Brenton Swartz and his brother were messing around with a gun their parents kept in the house. It went off and the bullet hit Brenton in the neck.

He was 15 when he became quadriplegic.

So, while other kids his age were out testing the boundaries of youthful independence, Brenton was in and out of hospital learning how to live without the use of his limbs.

Now 38, Brenton lives at the Durbanville Quadriplegic Centre. On Tuesday, he visited Groote Schuur Hospital to share his story on World Spinal Cord Injury Day.

Apart from raising awareness about spinal injuries, the day also honours the achievements of those who have to go through life with less mobility.

Despite his injury, Brenton held on to his dream of becoming an architect and he completed his studies in architecture at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). But finding work proved impossible.

“It was difficult to get a job, and I moved into a house where people painted so I decided to take that up. I now work from home and paint for a Swiss-based company called the The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting (AMFPA). In 2009 I got a bursary from them to study art,” he said.

“I love it, very few people can say that their hobby is their day job. They turn the paintings into postcards, calendars and anything.”

He uses his mouth to hold the paint brushes and it takes him about two weeks to finish a painting. Some of his work was on display on Tuesday and it drew a lot of attention from passers-by.

QuadPara Association vice chairman, Raven Benny, who organised the event, is also a quadriplegic.

He worked at Groote Schuur Hospital for 10 years before an accident put him in a wheelchair.

“In the year 2000, I was driving in a car with my parents on our way to a wedding, I fell asleep in the back of the car while my dad drove, and when I woke up, my life was literally turned upside down because the car was upside down.

“We were in a car accident and I broke my neck. Luckily no one perished. I worked at the hospital for 10 years before that and after I continued working here for another 17 years,” said Raven.

He said spinal cord injuries were the most debilitating injuries one could have and Groote Schuur spinal unit doctor, Johan Sothman agreed.

Car crashes are to blame for almost half of all spinal injuries seen at the hospital. Violence – stabbings, gunshots and assaults – account for the second biggest category.

“We try to get the message out there to avoid risky situations because it is quite a devastating injury which can be prevented.

“Patients are hospitalised for three or four months and after that they stay at the rehabilitation centre for a long time. They’re away from their family and many times they’re the breadwinners.

“Recovery depends on the extent of the injury, when it is less severe, there is potential for recovery,” said Dr Sothmann.