5 Years ago this Joburg burn victim was given a 30% chance of survival. Now he is back on the golf course

Kelvin van Baalen has a new lease on life. Photo: Netcare

Kelvin van Baalen has a new lease on life. Photo: Netcare

Published May 9, 2023


Cape Town - Five years ago, a Johannesburg man stood at death’s door after being given a 30% chance of survival. Today, he is the true testament to the power of the human spirit.

Kelvin van Baalen survived a paragliding accident weeks after his 21st birthday after colliding with power lines during a competition.

After the impact, he lost consciousness, and when he woke up, he was surrounded by flames and on fire.

Van Baalen managed to unbuckle himself as he was still strapped to his paragliding harness and crawled out of the wreckage. During this time, most of his clothes had burned away, and his injuries had him fighting for his life.

He spent over a year receiving treatment at the Netcare Milpark Hospital’s burns unit.

Kelvin van Baalen has a new lease on life. Photo: Netcare

The manager of the burns unit and a specialist nurse, Katinka Rheeder, said burns recovery involved 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 said.

Rheeder said van Baalen’s skin had been burnt so badly it could not heal or regenerate.

His first month in hospital was spent in a medically-induced coma, and he 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, van Baalen, who works for a construction company, does site checks. A different reality he had just years before.

His new lease on life also has him hitting the books again.

“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,” van Baalen said.

He also returned to playing sports and is an avid golfer.

“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 said.

Rheeder said due to the highly complex nature of burn injuries, caring for burn 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 said.

Dr Virginia Wilson is a general practitioner with a special interest in rehabilitative care who practises at the Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, where van Baalen was admitted for the next stage of his treatment.

“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.

“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.

Van Baalen said three and a half years later, when he got home for good, he had to dig deep.

“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 said.

His words for others who may just have started their recovery journey:

“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”.