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Able, though disabled

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Four professionals in Kimberley have not allowed their sudden disability to wear them down and hinder them from living an active and full ‘normal’ life.

Doctor Ambrose Swartbooi, head of radiology, in his office at Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital. Picture: Soraya Crowie

FOUR professionals in Kimberley have not allowed their sudden disability to wear them down and hinder them from living an active and full “normal” life.

As Disability Awareness Month is globally observed in November, many disabled people have broken the stereotype that they are using their disability as a “crutch”.

Four disabled professionals – the head of radiology at the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital, a qualified town planner, a qualified paramedic and an administration clerk at the Galeshewe Day Hospital – all indicated their disabilities have given them the strength to keep forging on.

Doctor Ambrose Swartbooi, who is a quadriplegic following a car accident, said his disability has given him the fighting spirit to become a specialist in radiology.

“In 2006, during my second year of internship I was involved in a car accident in Bloemfontein. Someone hit the vehicle we were travelling in on the side. I broke my neck and have been wheelchair bound since. I underwent rehabilitation in Bloemfontein. At the time I was employed at the Universitas Hospital and was then placed on capacity leave.

“I went back to work in 2008, but not in the clinical field. I worked in administration. In August or September that year I shadowed some radiology practitioners. I continued as an intern at the time. I got a post in radiology in 2010. I wrote my final examination in 2014.

“However, I encountered some challenges with my registration at the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). I graduated in 2016 and still had registration issues with the HPCSA and was forced to rewrite my examination in 2018. I was only recognised as a specialist after I had to write twice,” Swartbooi said.

He said the passion he had for the medical industry and the personal goal to break the stereotypes around disability gave him the courage to overcome the challenges during his registration.

“After my accident, when I found that I am wheelchair-bound, I took it one step at a time. I did not fight it and just went to rewrite. Sometimes when one goes with the flow, things automatically fall into place. It has always been my childhood dream to be a doctor. One has to cling to your dreams no matter any unforeseen circumstances,” he said.

He said he might not have been where he is today if he had fallen into a well of pity.

“I came to Kimberey in 2017 and worked as a specialist. At the time Doctor De Kock was my supervisor. He went into private practice and I was the only specialist in radiology in the entire Province. We get patients from across the Northern Cape who are reliant on the services we provide at this hospital.

“I would have never been able to make a difference in the lives of the thousands of patients had I believed that I was not unable to reach my goals due to my disability. I live a very normal life with my wife, who was also in the accident. My disability has not hindered any area of my life, despite the fact that I cannot walk,” he said.

Miemie Higgs, who is also a quadriplegic following a car accident, said she had to show people that she was still the same person.

“I was working as a qualified town planner and was involved in a car accident. I was working on a project in Colesberg and I was driving on a gravel road when I lost control of my car. I broke my neck and was in rehabilitation for three months in a hospital in Pretoria.

“After I was discharged I could see some people were uneasy to be around me. My employer was very helpful and I was able to return to my job. The office was revamped to make it wheelchair-friendly. Some of my friends were concerned and worried about how I would live my life.

“My husband, who had been a great support throughout, told them that I am still the same person and that my personality was still intact. He said that my disability did not take my personality,” Higgs said.

She said her children also adapted to her new mobility.

“I told my children while I was still in hospital that I would not be able to walk. They did not have an issue with that and were just happy that I was still alive.”

Goodwin Thomas, who is a paramedic at Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital, said his disability saved his life.

“I am a paraplegic following a botched suicide attempt. At the age of 28 I decided to take my own life by drinking poison. I ended up in the intensive care unit (ICU) for three months. I was unconscious and had to undergo an operation.

“After I regained my consciousness, I found that I was unable to walk and I have been wheelchair-bound since. However, my disability over the years has taught me how to engage with people and also how to appreciate the little things in life. I now have more energy and zest for life at the age of 49 than when I was in my 20s,” Thomas said.

He said he now assists patients who find it tough to accept their sudden disability.

“Some people think disabled people are born that way. They do not think that they can also find themselves in a situation where they end up in a wheelchair. I encourage patients who have to undergo amputations that losing a limb or the use thereof, is not the end of the world. I never thought that I would be in a space where I can openly advocate and speak about my disability. I have embraced my disability and it has given me light to carry on with my life and to reach for my dreams,” Thomas said.

Jemina Masilo is a double amputee who is employed as an administration officer at the Galeshewe Day Hospital and said not having arms is “normal” to her.

“I burned both my arms in soft porridge when I was only two years old. I grew up not missing arms as I was too young to remember what it felt like to have arms prior to my accident. People are usually shocked when they see me. Some would stand in awe and wonder how I go about each day.

“I have taught myself how to do some house chores over the years by using my feet. I can eat, write, iron and conduct other chores by using my feet. I was raised by my grandmother and went to Helen Bishop Home. It was there where I was taught how to do certain things with the help of my feet,” she said.

Masilo said her strong support structure has assisted her in overcoming the stereotypes of people with disabilities.

“Some people think just because you are disabled you do not have a brain. There is nothing wrong with my mental state. There are many who are willing to learn and help once you explain your story to them. On the other hand, there are disabled people who use their disability to get pity from other people.

“If you have a healthy brain and just cannot use a certain limb in your body, it does not mean you have to be isolated from society. There are many opportunities where you can exercise your brain and expertise. I hate it when people say ‘ag shame’ when they look at me. I tell them just because one is disabled, does not mean you are not educated,” Masilo said.

Goodwin Thomas, a wheelchair-bound paramedic at Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital, said his disability was a blessing in disguise. Picture: Supplied

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