He paraglided into power lines and it changed his life forever
Wits student faces years of skin grafts, reconstructive surgeries, rehabilitation and psychological therapy
Wits student Kelvin van Baalen had won many paragliding competitions by the age of 21, but none could have prepared him for the worst accident of his life.
In June, the Johannesburger was coming in to land in the Barberton Paragliding Open when he spotted power lines in his path. A split-second decision to make a sharp turn sent him spinning almost to his death.
“Kelvin says he did not see the lines until right towards the end,” his mother, Leigh van Baalen, told Times Select.
A surge of electricity knocked him unconscious, but he woke to find himself engulfed in flames. Van Baalen rolled around in the grass to put the flames out and had to climb a nearby tree to escape the ensuing veld fire.
His father, Douglas van Baalen, found him clinging to a branch. The student was rushed to Milpark Hospital in critical condition with 62% body burns. He had a collapsed lung, failing kidneys and was severely dehydrated.
Plastic surgeons immediately started removing compromised skin before starting multiple graft procedures.
Ten weeks later, Van Baalen is still fighting for his life. He is awake after being in a coma for a month but is still battling with infections and pneumonia. Doctors predict he will be in ICU for months.
“He has had 17 skin grafts on the front of his body. At the moment he is battling a bacterial infection so unfortunately about 5% of those grafts have been lost,” his mother said.
She said her son had both electrical and fire burns to the front and back of his body and the doctors had to remove shards of bone from his hip, the entry point of the electricity.
He now faces years of skin grafts, reconstructive surgeries, rehabilitation and psychological therapy.
Leigh said her son has become afraid of the dark and doesn’t like to be alone. “He is in constant pain and is fearful that he may lose his left leg. He is convinced he is still burning.”
Anton Naude, from Lowveld Slope Soaring Club, was an organiser of the competition.
“In 28 years of flying I have never seen this kind of incident,” he said, adding that power lines are one of the greatest risks for paragliders. If a paraglider flies facing the sun, it is very hard to see the lines.
Leigh said Van Baalen was an experienced paraglider, despite his young age. “His father is an experienced paraglider and Kelvin grew up on the ridges, watching fliers, helping them set up. He got his licence when he was 16, but it’s always been in his blood.”
Bronwen Jones, founder of Children of Fire International, said Van Baalen’s attitude will go a long way in aiding his recovery. “He has a long road ahead, but people have survived burns like his. He needs to keep a positive mindset.”
Leigh said she missed her son’s laugh the most and could not wait for him to come home. “Kelv is the sorta kid that gets on with life, he is a fighter. We will survive.”
“He said to me: ‘I thought I was going to die,’ and the doctors have said that he shouldn’t have survived this. But here he is,” she said.