Hans Myburgh decided in Grade 6 that he wanted to be a surgeon. His inspiration was Chris Barnard, who had just performed the first successful heart transplant.
His childhood dream became reality in 1992 when he qualified as an orthopaedic surgeon. He immediately opened his own practice which grew from strength to strength. Life was good. Hans enjoyed hunting, fishing and endurance sports. He completed the Two Oceans Marathon and the Comrades Marathon, and hiked all over South Africa and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. He also got a private pilot’s license.
In September 2001, Hans was driving home from work on his BMW motorcycle when a car jumped a stop sign and drove in front of him. He was 42 years old.
Hang on a bit
“My injuries were severe. Being an orthopaedic surgeon I realised immediately I was paralysed and I did not want to live. I prayed to God to fetch me, but then my wife, Celeste, arrived and I thought maybe I would hang on a bit.”
Hans is a chest T3 paraplegic. His injuries included a fractured chest bone, a ruptured oesophagus, lymphatic duct, fractured pelvis and hands. “I don’t remember much after arriving in casualty. They called Celeste four times to say good-bye, but she prayed and by some miracle I survived.”
Hans spent 40 days in ICU. After that he went to the spinal unit for rehabilitation. “I could not eat or drink for six6 months as my oesophagus had been removed so I had a tube feeding me into my stomach.”
Six months later Hans was stronger and ready for more surgery. “In Unitas Hospital I underwent surgery to make me a new oesophagus from parts of my stomach. I really thought I would recover well, as I had worked hard in rehab.”
However, Hans suffered complications and nearly bled to death. He spent another 39 days in ICU. His wife was called three times to say goodbye, but Hans survived and in April 2002 he went back to rehab. “It was disheartening, as I had to start all over again. Eventually in June that year, I was discharged.”
Back into private practice
Relieved to get out of rehab, he began putting his life back together again. He wanted to go back to private practice, but everyone around him said no, impossible. Wife Celeste, herself an occupational therapist, encouraged him. He started investigating how to continue with his work.
He began to work with theatre instruments and also did lead artwork to improve his eye-hand coordination. He searched the internet about other orthopaedic surgeons in his position. ”Unfortunately I was the only orthopaedic surgeon in the world in a wheelchair. That was when I came across Richard Moyoyo, who is a paraplegic neurosurgeon, working at Johannesburg General Hospital.” (Richard was featured in a recent issue of Rolling Inspiration.)
Hans desperately wanted to see Richard in action in a operating theatre, but couldn’t get hold of him. A good friend and fellow orthopaedic surgeon at Johannesburg General Hospital accompanied Hans to see how Richard’s theatre was equipped. ”Neurosurgery is a different discipline to Orthopaedic surgery and we concluded that what worked for Richard would not work for me,” says Hans.
However, his solution came from a most unusual source. “I was watching a disabled golf tournament on television and saw some of the players using stand-up wheelchairs. And I wondered if I could operate using this type of chair. I got in touch with Eugene Vorster from Disability Golf and he encouraged me to take part in a tournament and try out some stand-up chairs. I must say that the guys were so good to me, assisting me to use their chairs. They were very helpful.”
As a result, Hans had hope that he would be able to work again. In July 2002 he and Celeste went to the UK and France to look at two different types of electric stand-up chairs.
And then the amazing happened. The Eugene Marais Hospital and Akasia Hospital both contacted him, saying they would adapt their theatre, including the theatre bed, restroom facilities, and wash basins for him to operate using a stand-up chair. They also said they would buy the chairs for him.
While he was elated, he was also apprehensive, as he had not operated for nine months. To regain his confidence, he assisted two orthopaedic surgeons for three months.
‘You do the operation today’
Hans remembers his first operation well. As he entered the theatre, the surgeon he was assisting said, ‘You do the operation today.’ Hans was stunned and very nervous. He remembers sweating and the scalpel trembling in his hand. But as he touched it to skin, he was calm. He knew then he would be just fine.
Hans applied for his licence and soon he was back in private practice. “During the first three months of my private practice I had orthopaedic surgeons assist me before using my own assistants.”
In 2005 Hans was asked if he would take over the Shoulder and Hand Unit, his specialisation, at the Pretoria Academic Hospital. He accepted and began work in March 2006, while still continuing his private practice. “I have always been a workaholic. I realise how important interpersonal relationships are, and I try to give more to my wife, my family and friends.“Nobody can fully understand the trauma of a spinal cord injury. Even when it happens to you, at first you are so overwhelmed by the situation that you don't realise the full implications. You are so busy trying to survive and provide for your family. It is only when time has passed that you can acknowledge that this terrible event has happened. If you can get to that point, you can have an almost normal life.”
"I found hope to continue"
One of Hans' mechanisms for coping with setbacks is a diary of sorts. “I took a book and started noting my progress in it. I dated it and whenever I got depressed and suffered a setback, I would refer to my book. By noting where I started and the progress I had made, I found hope to continue.”
At the same time he says that you need to be resilient. “I never gave up, and I want to tell others: don’t give up if you cannot accomplish something the first time or the second time, or the hundredth time. Some things I had to do over a hundred times before I could get them right. The first time I attempted to get on a quad bike was a disaster. Today I can get on my quad – it doesn’t look pretty, but I get on and ride.”
Hans completed the Quads4Quads event last year on his Yamaha 660cc Grizzly. “My quad gives me so much freedom. I have always loved the outdoors and now I can move around the veld without any help. I feel unlimited in where I go and what I do.”
Hans does fly fishing. He had to do things over and over before he got it right. He also hunts again. He practiced target shooting for some months before he felt confident to go out into the veld again. Last winter he shot a blesbok. He’s just started doing archery.
Someone who believes in you
Hans spends time with his wife, family and friends an activity that became important after his accident. “I would never have survived without God and my wife. You have to have someone with you who believes in you and supports you. My wife encouraged me from the beginning. She told me that I was the best orthopaedic surgeon and would work again.
“If you have a loving partner like I do, don't misuse them, because they are precious and there are not that many around. I know that at times people in wheelchairs can be manipulative and abusive – you think you are unable to do anything and order people around. Don't. Rather try to do as much as possible for yourself. I do this on a daily basis. Of course, there are things I know I will never do, such as get up stairs or reach something high up. Celeste puts the chocolates in the house high up!” He laughs. “I think she does it on purpose.”
Hans also enjoys other people in wheelchairs. “Don't shy away. The most wonderful people encouraged me when I was in hospital and after that. They still do. You need to realise that life does not come to a grinding halt because you have a spinal injury. “
Before my accident, I enjoyed life. I don't have any regrets. That said, today I still enjoy life, just differently. I like to think about what is left, not what is lost.”