Gesie van Niekerk lives in Parow now, but she grew up in Namaqualand.
On an Easter weekend in 1988, she and her boyfriend were driving to Springbok to visit her parents, when he lost control of the car.
They’d been going fast, and, by the time the car stopped rolling, Gesie had suffered a neck injury: she was paralysed from her chest down. She was 26.
Gesie spent six months in hospital after the car crash. Afterwards she went to stay with her parents, Tokkie and Oubaas, for three months.
“That was a very dark time for me. I think I cried for three months straight. I was 26 years old and felt hopeless and desperate. My parents and siblings were extremely supportive. When I was in hospital, my mother would spend up to a fortnight at a time by my bedside. It was a very sad time for me. These days I don’t think of it very much because I don’t like to dwell on the negative.”
Soon afterwards, Gesie and her boyfriend moved in with his parents in Roodepoort.
“It was very hard for me, even though they were very accommodating. They really helped me, but I did not know myself as a paralysed person. So I didn’t know how to approach life. Those were some of saddest times of my life.”
Gesie had trained as a nurse before the car crash and that helped her to land a job as a data capturer at Life Flora Clinic in Roodepoort . “I started working there in January 1989. It wasn’t the smoothest transition because I had trouble adjusting to the work environment. I didn’t see myself before the accident working at a 9am to 5pm office environment and it was sort of killing my soul.”
Gesie married her boyfriend in March 1989. Three years later, the couple moved to Cape Town. Gesie had landed a job at Louis Leipoldt Hospital in Bellville.Nine years later she found herself at another crossroads when her husband filed for divorce.
“It was a very dark period. I can’t say that I rose up from that: God lifted me. I had to learn how to dress; bath and use the toilet which was difficult.”
With no one to drive her to work and no driver’s licence of her own, just getting to work now also proved a Herculean trial… but one Gesie was determined to face head-on with her non-motorised wheelchair.
“I used the wheelchair to get to work which was 3km uphill.”
Later she was able to rely on the City’s Dial-A-Ride service to get to where she needed to be, but Gesie only felt like she had won her independence back when she got her driver’s licence in March this year.
“It was such a relief to get it. It’s such freedom to be able to get into my car and drive anywhere or even offer someone else a lift.”
She says life is what you choose to make it when you are living with a disability.
“I see it as a daily decision that you make. Only you can decide how your day is going to be. If I let circumstances dictate my hope: then I would be lost.”
It’s been almost three decades since those fateful few seconds on the road to Springbok changed her life, but Gesie, now 55, is still determined to live her life on her own terms and not let her disability dictate what she can and cannot do.
“It’s important for me to strike a balance between independence and inter-dependence … I spend my days reading books; watching movies and having friends over. I am just living. I also hand cycle two to three times a week because I want to be stronger than I was at 40. I love the feeling of the wind through my hair while I watch the birds and trees go by.”
Gesie is just one of many people whose lives have been changed in an instant by a spinal cord injury. The prevalence of these injuries and the challenges faced by those living with them are recognised by World Spinal Cord Injury Day, marked annually on September 5.