Drawn to nature: Art inspires life after spinal injury
Quadriplegic discovers latent talent after a diving accident at 22 left him paralysed from the neck down
He sits in his wheelchair, brush in mouth, and paints anything that inspires him, from flowers and birds to nature landscapes.
If Ferdi Prins, 56, is not painting he is doing Quasar Trust admin work, answering phones or sorting out staff salaries. He is one of seven quadriplegics who live in and run the self-help centre in Parow, Cape Town. “I love nature … it manifests God’s creativity. Nature is complex yet so simple, and I’m always drawn to it,” he said.
Three decades ago, painting was the furthest thing from the mind of a fit and active Prins, but a diving accident when he was 22 left him paralysed from the neck down and changed his life forever.
“If you had asked me to paint before my injury I would have laughed at you. It never even crossed my mind that I’m an artist,” he said.
“When I first learnt of my paralysis I thought it was the end of me, but I’ve since realised that going through a difficult situation can bring out something that you never thought you are capable of doing.”
Prins is one of the casualties of diving accidents who have gone through the acute spinal cord injury unit at Groote Schuur Hospital, which is on standby for a busy season as holidaymakers arrive in Cape Town to enjoy its beaches and watersports.
Unit head Dr Nicholas Kruger, a consultant orthopaedic spinal surgeon, said summer was the unit’s busiest time, with 75% of the diving casualties admitted between November and February.
Most victims (91%) were young males, with an average age of 23. Almost 40% of spinal cord injuries were linked to alcohol use.
Kruger said most diving accidents occurred in shallow water, mainly at beaches, rivers, swimming and tidal pools, and dams.
While many hospitals treat minor spinal injuries, the Groote Schuur unit is the only one in SA that treats acute post-traumatic cases. Other spinal injuries the unit expects to soar this season are caused by car crashes and violence.
Kruger said diving accidents were 100% preventable as long as people do not dive head first. He said that instead of diving with their hands or feet first, many people dived with their hands by their side. This meant the head took the full force of an impact, causing severe spinal injuries. About 93% of diving accident victims ended up as quadriplegics, meaning they have lost total or partial use of their limbs.
“The sad part about diving accidents is that most of these patients are young men who are healthy and working, providing support for their families,” said Kruger.
“To most, diving is a spur-of-the-moment thing, but its results are devastating. Instead of them caring for their families they end up being the ones being cared for, for the rest of their lives.”
Prins remembers the day his life changed as if it were yesterday. It was December 1984 when he and his friends went to the Berg River in Paarl for New Year’s Eve celebrations.
“We decided to go for a swim … it was a beautiful and fun day. I still planned to go for a New Year’s Eve party in the evening. I took a nice dive, but that’s the last I remember of it … all I remember seeing is a flash light in front of me,” he said.
When he regained consciousness three days later, he was in Tygerberg Hospital surrounded by nurses and doctors. They told him he had slammed his head into a hard surface and broken his vertebrae, leaving him paralysed from the neck down.
Kruger said acute management of spinal cord injuries was complex and expensive, since patients needed long hospital stays and years of rehabilitation and follow-ups. Most patients ended up with poor lung function owing to repeated chest infections, while others battled pressure sores due to restricted movement.
Unit social worker Ria van der Walt said that while spinal cord injury was devastating, it was not the end of the world. Some patients went on to become accomplished athletes while others were artists, motivational speakers and authors.
“These patients can still be useful in our society. It is their bodies that are paralysed not their brain,” she said.
“When they come out of their depression phase, most show resilience and make positive changes to their lives. Others often want to go back and raise awareness about their injuries … either on the roads, in the case of motor vehicle accident victims, or beaches for diving survivors.”
Prins agreed that the resilience of the human spirit could go a long way, particularly when someone was surrounded by positive thinking.
“There are far too many opportunities in life. I don’t have any functionality of my arms or legs, and that is really hard … but life is worth living,” he said.
“I don’t allow my disability to define me ... you can’t live your life feeling sorry for yourself. When I look back I realise how blessed I am to be alive. When I look at the bigger picture the good is still better than all the bad.”