Oscar Pistorius at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Picture: Gianluigi Guercia

Pretoria - Oscar Pistorius’s defence team today called an expert witness who said the athlete’s fight or flight response may be higher than that of an able-bodied person.

The second witness called to the stand in Pistorius' murder trial was the South African Paralympic team doctor, Professor Wayne Derman. He accompanied the team to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Derman insisted that he was testifying in his personal capacity, not on behalf of any organisation or entity.

His research specialties included neuroscience, stress response and chronic disease prevention among the disabled.

Derman testified that for disabled athletes, travelling and touring can lead to numerous medical challenges.

The professor outlined his experiences over the past six years with Pistorius, saying he had directly consulted with Pistorius both formally and informally as a doctor while on tour with the athlete. He had also observed him interacting with fellow athletes, authority figures and the public.

Derman said Pistorius was a professional athlete who was always vigilant or cautious about consuming supplements and medications that could have been prohibited while competing. “To my knowledge he has never tested positive for any prohibited substances,” said Derman.

He said the most of Pistorius' medical issues were from his stumps' soft tissues that would occasionally become irritated and swollen, particularly his left stump.

On one occasion, while trying to qualify for the London Olympics, Pistorius contacted Derman on Skype to show the doctor his bleeding stumps, where Derman recommended medication for him to acquire. Derman said

Pistorius was an anxious person with a hand tremor and he had treated the athlete before for a sleeping disorder.

The doctor said he had conducted research where they compared disabled athletes with able-bodied athletes and found that the disabled had higher indicators of psychological distress after competitions.

He revealed that Pistorius had also participated in the study. The athlete had answered a questionnaire suggesting he often felt distressed, but that the psychological markers had decreased after he had participated in competitions. However, his overall values were seen as generally higher than the rest of the group participating in the study. Derman said these tests showed which athletes needed more of his medical support.

He said Pistorius was hyper-vigilant, even during their one-on one consultations.

He also noted that Pistorius had excessive responses around fireworks and other loud noises, sometimes cowering in fear.

On February 2, 2013, Pistorius contacted the doctor about a sinus problem that was hampering his breathing. Pistorius told Derman he was “lying next to the most wonderful girl he had met” - referring to Reeva Steenkamp - and that she would drive him to pick up his medication.

Prompted by defence advocate Kenny Oldwadge, Derman said that the fight or flight response in certain individuals - especially the disabled or those with mobility impairment - was more pronounced.

The fight or flight response is the sympathetic nervous system preparing the body to confront or flee from a conflict situation.

Derman then read an email he received from a disabled women in the UK who stated that she too had exaggerated responses to potential threats.

State prosecutor Gerrie Nel argued that this was hearsay, but Oldwadge argued the email was relevant as it supported the expert testimony provided by Derman.

Judge Thokozile Masipa sustained Nel's objection saying the evidence could not be used to bolster Derman's expert testimony. She expunged the sections of the emails read from the record.

Derman continued by quoting a World Health Organisation study that found that disabled members of society are more likely to experience violence and are more vulnerable to it.
Derman said a disabled person is not vulnerable or any easy target, and just because somebody is a wheelchair user does not make them a vulnerable target for fraud, for example, but it may make them an easier target for theft.

He returned to his analysis of the fight or flight response.

According to the doctor, certain individuals had less control over their actions in high anxiety situations.

Oldwadge then asked that the psychological report on Pistorius' mental health not be published in the media, except the conclusions already discussed in court.
Judge Masipa agreed to this request, ordering that none of the personal information in the report be made public.

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The Star