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Cape Town -
Four people have been admitted to Groote Schuur Hospital’s acute spinal cord injury unit this month following diving accidents. Three of them have been permanently paralysed from the neck down and will probably never walk again.
Just over a week ago, Nathan Terblanche, 24, of Pacaltsdorp in George, dived into the water from a rubber duck. He slammed his head into a sandbank, an accident that left him paralysed from his neck down.
A technician for a leading car manufacturer, Terblanche had been hoping to unwind after a hectic year by having a
relaxing picnic and braai at a local river mouth with friends and family.
But for the father of a one-year-old boy, life will never be the same.
Terblanche will probably never be able to do his job again, or take his son fishing or play sport with him.
Dr Juliette Stander, a spinal injury expert who is treating Terblanche, said that while the unit treated an average of seven patients a year who sustained severe neck injuries from diving accidents, the number looked set to increase this year.
Stander said the unit’s ICU – the only such unit in the Western Cape – was already at full capacity.
“Traditionally, our busiest day is New Year’s Day… every year on this day we get a spinal injury related to diving. In most cases, these happen at the beach, tidal pools and rivers. Often people misjudge the depth and hit their heads on sand banks or rocky surfaces.
“Most of them are typical young males who are either studying or have just started working. We think that males are more at risk because they are more energetic and risk-takers,” she said.
Stander added that apart from the patients losing their mobility, these injuries also affected the livelihood of many families, as some were breadwinners or young people with their lives ahead of them. About half the beds at the unit were occupied by young men.
About half of all diving accidents were likely to end as permanent paralysis from the head down, and it could take up to six months of hospitalisation and rehabilitation before a patient could be sent home.
Stander said most diving accidents could be avoided if people didn’t dive head-first.
“Head-first diving, whether with outstretched arms or not, is extremely risky.
“Diving accidents are preventable… rather test the depth of the water first before diving, or avoid it altogether,” she said.
Apart from diving accidents, the unit, which treats about 200 spinal injuries a year, was also expecting to see more car accident injuries and those related to domestic violence over the festive season.
“The bulk of the cases we get are alcohol related. It’s mostly car accidents, but another huge chunk has to do with gang violence.
“The message we want to get out is that about 80 percent of spinal injuries we treat here can be avoided if people avoid risk,” she said.
While it may be too late for Terblanche to turn back the clock, he has a message for divers: “If I knew then what I know now, I could have avoided the accident… I could have tested the depth of the water before diving or I could have given it more thought before doing it,” he said.