Pam never thought of disability. She never had a medical aid until four months before she severed her spinal cord when she fell 10 metres off a foofie slide.
That was in 1998. Today, she chats while making coffee, saying she still remembers thinking at the time, “How should I fall? Eventually after what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a second, I fell and landed upright on my feet. I suffered no pain, just had no feeling from the waist down.”
At the time Pam was working for the Association of Personnel Services of South Africa (APSO) doing PR, conferences and newsletters. Her work there was to be one of her saving graces in her rehabilitation.
“APSO loaned me a laptop and asked me to continue with the newsletters I did for them. However, my newsletters were always positive before my accident. What do I do now? But it forced my mind to work, as I still had to meet my deadlines.”
Pam's accident on 16 December meant she spent Christmas in hospital. “It was awful. I was probably one of a handful of patients left in the entire hospital. The reality of what had happened really struck me then. I remember thinking that it was not so easy.” (Picture: Paul and Pam at home)
Rehabilitation was no different, and after three months, when Pam went home reality struck again. The harsh truth came home to her very clearly. She had thought she would simply walk out of rehabilitation. It was just a question of getting her legs moving.
Pam, a single mother, also had to deal with personal family issues. “My son went to live with his father while I was in rehabilitation and I was so scared of losing him. On the other hand, I was really worried about him and his reaction to what had happened to me. He had just started high school at the time.”
Her worries proved to be unfounded as her son matriculated with seven distinctions and, in June this year, is graduating from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Pam is hoping to go over for the graduation.
After the accident, Pam and her partner then, Paul, were thinking about going their separate ways. “At first Paul, knowing what we were like before, tried to keep the memories. However, it was inevitable that both of us would change.
“It has not been an easy ride for either of us; but rather a bit of a roller coaster ride. The only information, ironically enough, that we could get hold of was that 99% of relationships do not survive after a spinal cord injury. Today, eight years later, we are still together and our bond is stronger than ever.”
The other person Pam had to deal with was herself. “My confidence was shattered. Gone was the fun, fast-lane girl. At first I would not even go out and when I did Paul was my ‘pusher’. He would push the wheelchair and I would see people look at him, then at me, then back at him and say ‘shame, what's wrong with her?’ I don’t know if they were feeling sorry for him, me or both of us!
“I had changed from a fiercely independent woman to being worse than a child. My son would have to draw money for me as the ATM was too high to reach.”
What helped Pam regain her confidence was a mixture of people and events. “Paul and I have a cottage at the Vaal River that we go to most weekends. Paul insisted I go out with him on the boat. I didn't want to. I thought, I am disabled and can never participate in outdoor activities again. Of course, it is not so at all. In fact, physical exercise is imperative.
“I swim and gym regularly to keep my muscles flexible. You cannot afford to miss gym for one day. For us, the effect is the same as an able-bodied person missing gym for one month.”
Pam also has physiotherapy once a week. She has had the same physiotherapist since day one, something she says helps immensely. “When you feel down or can't get something right, my physio reminds me of how far I have come. Many people move from one to another. I recommend you stay with the same one. It is good to remember what you have achieved and it gives you a platform to build from.” (Picture: Paul and Pam swimming in the Vaal Dam)
While she’s been told her injury is in her spine and not her mind, she argues that it’s how you think, and what you believe, that makes the difference. “I look back at how helpless I was before. Now, I have regained feeling up to my ankles. It’s about what you believe.”