‘I shouldn’t be alive, and now I help other trauma survivors on their road to recovery’

How Netcare Milpark Hospital got US man mauled by chimps well enough to return home

Tuesday, October 31 2017

“The first thing I remember when I woke up from my induced coma at Netcare Milpark Hospital was seeing my mom and dad standing over me. Their faces looked both sad and relieved at the same time. Then my mom started asking me questions and I gradually remembered what had happened to me.”

Photo: "Five years later, Andrew Oberle is drawing from his experience as a trauma patient to help develop a new programme at St Louis University in the United States to help other trauma survivors on their path to a holistic recovery. The programme has been named ‘the Oberle Institute’ in his honour."

These are the words of United States citizen, Andrew Oberle, who in 2012 narrowly – some say ‘miraculously’ – survived an attack by chimpanzees while volunteering at a great ape sanctuary in South Africa.

Five years on, Andrew reflects on his recovery since waking up in Netcare Milpark Hospital several weeks after his ordeal. “I remember my mom showing me the many letters and cards from people all over the world wishing me luck and offering their prayers of support.  After reading them, she hung them near the end of my bed. I remember looking down at my body covered in blood-tinged bandages but, luckily, I was able to look past that and see that collage of love and support, which helped take my mind off my condition,” he remembers.

Andrew recalls the comforting presence of critical care specialist, Dr Paul Williams, who was one of the multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals involved in Andrew’s treatment. “I remember the feeling of relief every time he came to see me in my room. His compassion and confidence washed over me and always relaxed me, as far as my condition at that time allowed.”

Dr Williams remembers the severity of Andrew’s extensive injuries and the many hours of advanced medical expertise devoted to stabilising him. “Here was a critically injured young man, in the prime of his life, who showed considerable bravery in his determination to get well enough to be allowed to fly back to the US. From a medical perspective, Andrew’s case was highly complex and he required care from a multidisciplinary team to tackle the various dimensions of his condition.”

“Looking back on when Andrew was airlifted to Netcare Milpark Hospital, and now hearing about the progress he has made, the extent of his recovery is truly remarkable. It is very rewarding whenever a former patient gets in touch and tells us how they have got on in life.”

Andrew expressed particular thanks to trauma surgeon, Dr Riaan Pretorius, for his lifesaving interventions and the support he showed Andrew’s parents. He also remembers a particular interaction with physiotherapist, Moira Wilson, that marked a turning point in his recovery.

“She got me to sit up on the hospital bed so that she could help clear the fluid in my lungs, then set me a goal of sitting up on my bed for a few minutes each day, initially with a little help. She said that this was in preparation for the day when my doctors would consider me well enough to get on a plane to fly home. I want to thank her, not only for the treatment she provided but also for giving me belief that I was on the road to recovery, which helped steel my determination to get well enough to go home to St Louis in the United States.”

While Andrew’s memories of his time at Netcare Milpark Hospital are inevitably infused with the pain of his injuries, he also has positive recollections of regaining his strength and the world-class care he received there.

“I remember being rolled over on my side regularly so that the nurses could rub my back with lotion, and how good that felt. I remember being taken off the ventilator and slowly regaining my voice. Shortly after, I got to speak on the phone with family members back home, and I’ll never forget the joy in their voices at hearing mine,” he recalls.  

Finally, after several weeks, the day came when Andrew was discharged from Netcare Milpark Hospital for the long journey back to the United States. “I remember singing ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ to every nurse and doctor as I was wheeled out of hospital.  At last, I was on my way home.”                        

Back in the USA, Andrew received further extensive treatment and continued his healing journey, however he realised that he would not be able to pursue the fieldwork research on primates that he had intended to build a career on prior to sustaining his injuries. He wrote a new Master’s thesis while still recovering at home and graduated, however his future remained uncertain.

Mike Higgins, assistant vice president for Medical Centre Development at St Louis University, who had been inspired by Andrew’s story, made contact with him. “He thought my spirit and story could help many other people, so he invited me to join his team and use my experience as a trauma patient to develop a new programme to help other trauma patients on their way to a remarkable, holistic recovery like mine,” Andrew says.  

Andrew has since been working with an interdisciplinary team to build an enhanced trauma reconstruction and rehabilitation programme. “We aim to empower people to heal on all levels – body, mind and spirit – and go from surviving to thriving, like I have. Furthermore, our current benefactors have honoured me, as this new programme has been named the ‘Oberle Institute’. Their vision is for the programme to portray the kind of healing that is possible for trauma patients who need to overcome extreme adversity.”

Andrew has recently started working towards a Master’s degree in Health Administration, focusing on how healthcare management and policy can be effectively harnessed to ensure patients always receive the best possible care. Andrew has also since met the love of his life and they were delighted to welcome their daughter into the world in July this year.   

Andrew’s is just one of the remarkable recovery stories of Netcare Milpark Hospital’s level-one accredited trauma unit, which marks its 25th anniversary on 9 November this year.

“I fully understand that I shouldn’t be alive today.  My survival and the life I’ve been given since that day is a miracle.  That’s why I wake up every morning full of gratitude that I’m able to open my eyes, start my day, and keep that miracle moving forward. I want to thank the amazing people of South Africa for all the wonderful hospitality my family and I were shown during our time in Nelspruit and Johannesburg.

“I can’t thank my doctors, nurses, and other care providers enough for everything they did for me.  Without them, I wouldn’t be alive today.  They kept me breathing and helped me stay strong and healthy enough to make it back home and start a new life,” Andrew concluded.


Issued by:    Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare Milpark Hospital
Contact:    Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Meggan Saville and Pieter Rossouw
Telephone:    (011) 469 3016
Email:        [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected]