Pretoria News

Burn survivor’s miracle recovery from severe injuries


SPEAKING to Kelvin van Baalen you might think that he sounds just like any other young man, working, studying and busy building a future.

But Van Baalen’s story is very different to that of most – he is a burn survivor whose journey of recovery is testament to the power of the human spirit.

Next month will mark five years since the event that forever changed Van Baalen life when, just weeks after celebrating his 21st birthday, he was competing in a paragliding competition and collided with power lines.

After the impact Kelvin lost consciousness. When he awoke, he was lying on the ground surrounded by flames and on fire. Still strapped into his paragliding harness, Van Baalen managed to unbuckle himself and crawl out of the wreckage.

By that stage most of his clothes had burned away and the level of his injuries left him fighting for his life.

Katinka Rheeder, a specialist nurse and manager of the dedicated burns unit at Netcare Milpark Hospital where he spent over a year receiving treatment, said that the burns recovery journey involves many small steps taken over a long time.

“When Kelvin arrived here he had sustained severe burns to approximately two-thirds of his body surface. Local trauma statistics indicated a mere 30% predicted survival rate for burn injuries of this extent and severity.”

Rheeder explained that Van Baalen’s skin had been burnt so badly that it could not heal or regenerate.

He spent his first month in a medically-induced coma, underwent more than 27 surgeries, including extensive wound debridement and skin grafts.

He also had to undergo a gruelling programme of physiotherapy and ancillary health support before being able to come off ventilation and start taking his first few steps.

This was more than 300 days after the accident.

Today, his reality is vastly different. He now gets up every day to go to work, conducting site checks for a construction company.

“It’s been amazing to be on site and to watch the building take shape from the ground up as they dig the foundations, pour the concrete, build the walls and so on. I am also studying again. I had originally wanted to become a commercial pilot but I had to consider other possibilities and am now happy to be studying a Bcom finance,” Van Baalen said.

Even more remarkable is his return to playing sport.

“I love golf and play regularly, at least once a week, and I recently became an ambassador for the Country Club Johannesburg, participating in disabled tournaments. I’m playing a two handicap, surpassing a lot of the top players who don’t have any physical constraints. I think they are now a little wary of my skill level,” he joked.

According to Rheeder, caring for burns patients requires a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, dieticians, physical therapists, clinical psychologists and others.

“The care for our patients is incredibly intensive and we need to be here for them at all times. We form strong bonds with their families and it’s very hard when you just don’t know if a patient will recover.”

More than a year after his first admission to the burn unit, Van Baalen was discharged for the next stage of his treatment at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, where he stayed for two-anda-half months.

“Rehabilitation is a vital part of the recovery process for severe burns, particularly over large surfaces of the body, as was the case with Kelvin,” Rheeder explained.

She said complications with infection, graft rejection and organ failure were common. The joints are usually very stiff and if daily physiotherapy is not done it can result in permanent contractures, which is when the tissue tightens or shortens causing pain and a reduced range of movement.

Van Baalen said it had been just three-and-a-half years since he got to come home for good.

“That was not the end of digging deep – I had to push myself to walk around our house, adding more laps each day. But it was worth it – I can now walk around the entire golf course.”

His message to other burns survivors who are at the start of their journey is to believe in yourself, in your inner strength and tap into that positive thought, no matter what you might hear. He said the beginning is tough. “It starts slowly and then it takes off like a rocket”.

“I also believe in the power of body positivity. I do not allow my burns to hold me back from living life to the fullest. I play golf in shorts because I want to feel comfortable and play well. You can’t change what happened, but you can embrace what you have achieved. It’s all part of your story.”





African News Agency