Durban - The theft of his donated wheelchair has devastated a Durban quadriplegic, who broke down when he realised it had also robbed him of his independence.
Alan Pretorius, 37, who was born with cerebral palsy, felt like he could “run” for the first time in his life when he received the five-speed motorised wheelchair, worth R10 000, just over a year ago, thanks to generous donations.
He is now back to depending on his mother, Shirley Pretorius, to push him around.
The pair are a familiar sight on the roadside near Windermere Centre where they have a spot selling “doggie blankets”. They were returning home on Monday afternoon when the wheelchair was stolen.
Shirley said because of the mechanics, the chair was too heavy for her to lug to their first floor flat so it was kept in a storeroom on the ground floor of their block of flats.
“I transferred him on to his normal chair then pulled him up the 18 steps home,” said the 59-year-old. After settling him in, she came back out to lock up the motorised wheelchair but froze when she saw it was no longer there.
“Initially, I thought some of the kids in the block had tried to drive it so I ran to look around in the courtyard,” she said.
Shirley said she then remembered that the electronic access gate had been left open since the weekend owing to a fault, so the realisation that the wheelchair had been stolen started to set in.
“It’s not easy for someone who is not familiar with it to work it and it takes the strength of two men to lift it. I thought whoever took it may have abandoned it,” she said.
But it was gone.
“It was unreal. While he had it, Alan had his independence. Because he is not mentally challenged he does not need to be accompanied everywhere so the wheelchair was his freedom,” she said.
“With its hand control, he could cruise in the mall, go to the beach and ‘run’ with his friends.”
Due to the spastic movement affecting his whole body, Alan cannot talk and only makes noises. “He cried and made such a noise when I told him (about the theft). It destroyed me to see him like that,” Shirley said.
What frustrated Alan the most was that the theft took away his ability to go anywhere by himself. “As a full quadriplegic, I take care of all his basic needs but the wheelchair at least gave him some sort of normality,” she said.
Recalling how her son got the wheelchair, she said a Windermere businessman who had often passed them had asked a group of paddlers who call themselves “Geriatskis” to help raise funds for a motorised wheelchair. Within two days the donations had exceeded the requested amount.
Barry Edy, who refurbishes wheelchairs for a living, also remembers Alan’s excitement. A new motorised wheelchair costs about R25 000 but Edy was able to provide Alan with a refurbished one for R10 000.
Edy, himself wheelchair-bound for the past 50 years due to childhood polio, describes not being able to move around in a wheelchair as being jailed.
“It is worse now that he has tasted freedom with the ability to move around on his own in the motorised wheelchair,” he said. Edy’s heart went out to Alan and he again offered a refurbished motorised wheelchair at a discounted. price.
One of the donors said the theft made her lose hope and faith in people. “That they can stoop so low and steal from someone who already suffers is just cruel,” she said.
Although the theft has meant Shirley has to once again push Alan while carrying the trolley with the blankets they sell and some bags every day, she said she had forgiven the thieves.
“I pray for whoever stole the wheelchair that they find their saving grace and get out of the habit of taking from others,” she said.
“I still have the charger (for the wheelchair) at home,” Shirley said. “It’s a pity that chair will not even help anyone else because they won’t be able to charge it.”
Shirley also takes care of her husband, Johan, who is nine months in remission after a gruelling round of radiotherapy to treat his cancer. It was through faith, she said, that she was able to remain positive about life and humanity.