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 Kelvin’s story is very different to that of most – he is a burns survivor whose journey of recovery is testament to the power of the human spirit.
This June will mark five years since the event that forever changed Kelvin’s 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, though for how long he is not sure. When he awoke, he was lying on the ground surrounded by flames and on fire. Still strapped into his paragliding harness, Kelvin 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.
|Kelvin sustained severe burns to approximately two-thirds of his body after colliding with power lines in a paragliding accident. It took well over a year of treatment at the Netcare Milpark Hospital dedicated burn unit and Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Johannesburg, followed by many more months of recovery at home before Kelvin was fully mobile once more. He now plays golf regularly and is currently playing an impressive two handicap.
|Kelvin’s message to other burns survivors at the start of their journeys is to find your inner strength and tap into positive thinking. The beginning is tough but the progress is exponential – it starts slowly and then it takes off like a rocket, he says.
Katinka Rheeder, a specialist nurse and manager of the dedicated burns unit at Netcare Milpark Hospital where Kelvin spent over a year receiving treatment, says that the burns recovery journey involves many small steps taken over a long period of 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,” she says.
Rheeder explains that Kelvin’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, as well as 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,” he says.
Perhaps even more remarkable is Kelvin’s return to playing sport. “I love golf and play regularly, at least once every week, and I recently became an ambassador for the Country Club Johannesburg, participating in disabled tournaments. I am currently 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 laughs.
According to Rheeder, due to the highly complex nature of burns injuries, caring for burns patients requires a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, dieticians, physical therapists, clinical psychologists and others, working together in a specialised burns treatment environment.
“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 is very hard when you just don’t know if a patient will recover.
“We have to be pillars of strength for one another so that we can provide our patients with the compassion and dedication they need to heal. Ultimately, we are united in our goal to not only save the lives of patients like Kelvin but to see them on the road to a future where they can live active lives once more,” she says.
More than a year after his first admission to the burn unit Kelvin was discharged for the next stage of his treatment at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital. Here he would spend another two and a half months under the care of a team led by Dr Virginia Wilson, a general practitioner with a special interest in rehabilitative care, who practises at the facility.
“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,” she explains.
“Complications with infection, graft rejection and organ failure are 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. Many patients may require further surgery during the rehabilitation phase to close wounds or to release contractures.
“Physiotherapy and occupational therapy for at least three hours per day are necessary. Other essential aspects for wound healing include proper nutritional support and bathing with an antiseptic solution added to the water, which can also provide some comfort and relief.”
Dr Wilson points out that rehabilitation is important in addressing both the physical and the psychological aspects of burn injury. “As much as patients need care such as pressure garments to soften the thick scar tissue that can form, they also need emotional support and assistance in navigating this very challenging journey.
“As healing progresses, the scars are often itchy and uncomfortable, and sleep patterns are very disrupted, which can add to frustrations. It is important for severe burns survivors and their loved ones to remember that the adjustment takes a very long time,” she says.
Kelvin points out that it has 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. Well, it was worth it – I can now walk around the entire golf course,” he says.
Kelvin’s message to other burns survivors who are at the start of their journey is this: “Believe in yourself, in your inner strength and tap into that positive thought, no matter what you might hear. The beginning is tough but the progress is exponential – 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,” he concludes.
Notes to editor
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