For those whose lives change overnight due to the loss of a limb or paralysis there is no going back to the old way of life. There is only finding a new normal.
Juan-Claude Dittrich, affectionately known as JC, recalls it being an extremely hot day. It was December 21, 2014. He was making his way to Upington from his family farm in Wellington to visit his sweetheart.
His GPS had directed him onto a gravel road and the pothole that did the damage came with very little warning. An oncoming car left him no room to swerve. The lightweight vehicle he was driving hit the pothole and rolled. Its roof caved in and broke his neck in two places, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. A six-hour operation followed, in an attempt to minimise the damage and included a bone transplant from his hip to his neck. Then came three months of hospitalisation.
When Dittrich was discharged he was faced with adapting to an entirely new way of life, he says.
“You need to spend time on yourself and exercise each and every single day. You exercise your hands, your muscles. It’s just like being a baby and learning to walk again.”
Basic tasks, like dressing, taking a shower and getting out of a car, he could no longer do. He had to rely on others to care for him and tend to his needs. Despite this, he refused to let it get him down and was determined to recover his independence.
Early in 2017 he started training at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) in Newlands, Cape Town, where he went through nine months of intense rehabilitation training. He exercised for one to two hours, three times a week, and grew his strength. Increasingly he found he was able to do more by himself.
“I got my independence back and I was able to look after myself again,” says Dittrich, “[SSISA’s staff] transformed my life completely. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now if it wasn’t for them.”
Shifting with excitement in his wheelchair, Dittrich said he was previously unable to remain upright in the chair.
Through consistent exercise he defied the diagnosis from doctors that he would never enjoy any mobility. Today, he has enough upper body and arm strength to hold himself safely in his chair and has also improved motor function in his hands. He is again able to text.
He still attends training sessions at SSISA regularly, where he challenges his body during physical therapy in an exoskeleton. The exoskeleton is a robotic suit that allows mobility to those who cannot walk. It helps with building and maintaining strength in the lower limbs and is also good for blood circulation and strengthening the upper body.
The suit allows Dittrich to mimic the movement of walking but his goal is not necessarily to be able walk again. Rather, he wants to maintain his motivation and perseverance.
“I’m there to change the mindset of disabled people and to help them realise they’re not alone,” he says. “The trick is to never give up, ever. Have tenacity. It’s hard work, but never give up.”
Dittrich’s determination has seen him play chess again, as he had done before to the accident. The medals he won are a source of pride for him. He has also tried playing wheelchair rugby at the SSISA, in the end it was not for him. What has bitten is the cycling bug – hand cycling that is.
Hand cyclists use their handcycles instead of bicycles, with their arms providing motion rather than their legs. The specialised bicycles that hand cyclists use are pricy. In South Africa prices begin at R40 000.
Dittrich shows deep gratitude when he speaks about his bike. The US imported model worth R32 000 was sponsored, he said, not giving . His goal is to be fit enough to put his bike and cycling skills to the test and to enter the 2020 Paralympics. In preparation he will enter the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge and the Cape Argus next year. He also hopes into participate in international competitions.
“Since I have been in the wheelchair I have been doing crazy things… I have broken a lot barriers already, I want to prove them wrong,” Dittrich says about his detractors.
“Don’t feel sorry for people in wheelchairs. We are normal people like everyone else. We also have feelings, we shower, we eat, we are not different human beings. We are all in the same boat. Just because I’m in a chair with wheels and can’t walk doesn’t make me any different to you. Just love one another, respect one another, and appreciate what you have.”
His biggest source of strength is the Masonic Home for Paraplegics and Quadriplegics in Durbanville where he lives. Each resident has duty that helps them take ownership in the running and maintenance of the home. Dittrich is head of advertising and is working to secure funding to keep the home’s doors open.
There are a various ways one can help the Masonic Home for Paraplegics and Quadriplegics, including joining its Club 500 for R50 per month. The end goal is to have 500 members each donating on a monthly basis. It currently has 210. The home is not only a non-profit organisation* but also a public benefit organisation*, meaning donators can claim the funds back from the South African Revenue Service.
“They’re not losing any money, they’re helping a good cause,” Dittrich says.
*Non-Profit organization 074-457 and Public Benefit Organization 930041248.