Twenty years ago, a car accident left Freddie van der Walt paralysed from the neck down, but, instead of yielding to his misfortunes, he has embraced life’s random acts and grown into an inspiration for all.
While it might be difficult for many to talk about painful memories, they do not seem to faze Freddie all that much. One soon learns after meeting the 37-year-old that no subject is considered taboo.
Freddie lives at Robertson House, in Sanddrift. It’s a home for people with spinal-cord injuries.
Next month, he will hold a wcharity drive to raise money for a new motorised wheelchair that costs nearly R240 000.
Although there are cheaper options, Freddie has opted for additional features such as power recline seating and tilting, to avoid getting pressure sores, and a chin-control joystick. These additions cost a pretty penny but will make life in a chair a little more bearable for Freddie.
After 16 years of faithful service his current wheelchair is getting old, spare parts are hard to find and the “motor’s wheezing”.
The sun starts to burn his neck as he talks, so he uses the stick in his mouth to push a button and manoeuvre his chair away from the window.
The fund-raiser will take place at the Portuguese Club, in Rugby. There will be a three-course buffet, a live auction and raffles.
In the past few months and with the help of a few friends, Freddie raised just over R90 000 but then, after hearing about the plight of an old school friend who is battling to cover the costs of her daily dialysis, he paid her medical aid bill of R4 900.
Asked why he would help someone else when he needs help himself, he says: “When you do good things, good things come back to you.”
Some might accuse him of being naive, but in this instance he was proved right: within half an hour of transferring the money into his friend’s account, Freddie received a donation for his wheelchair of R7 500 from Ellen Hiemstra, owner of an overseas au pair agency.
He speaks candidly about the accident that put him in a wheelchair: he was in Grade 11 at Table View High School at the time.
It was a Monday afternoon in July 1996, and he was walking to a cafe with a friend when a car hit him as he tried to cross Blaauwberg Road at Boy de Goede Circle.
“I don’t remember the car hitting me. I remember my nose bleeding and the driver holding me. A few days later, I woke up in hospital.”
Even though it was only the beginning of his battle, his unwavering spirit made it difficult to stay down. He spent five months in hospital instead of seven as doctors predicted.
“They said I would be on a ventilator for the rest of my life, but after three months, I was off the machine. When it would pump air into my lungs, I would fight it, pushing the air back out trying to strengthen my lungs.”
A mischievous gleam comes into his eyes as he remembers giving the nurses “a hard time”.
Freddie blames no one for the accident. As far as he is concerned, it was just that: an accident.
The following year, he was back at school and he matriculated in 1998.
He may have made peace now with the past, but it wasn’t always like that.
“For the first four years, I struggled to accept it. I was still living at home, and I was depressed about it. You don’t want your mother to look after you all the time.”
At 21, he moved to Robertson House, and while his mother, Marja Smit, was “not too happy” with the decision, she accepted it.
When Freddie started going for work interviews, his mother was there to drive him around, but he soon learnt that having a qualification in tourism management is not enough to land you a job when you are a quadriplegic.
“Everything is physical. You need hands for everything. I can’t speak on the phone and type at the same time.”
But his luck changed when he met someone on Facebook who worked for a call centre.
She arranged an interview for Freddie, and he landed a job as a quality assessor rating phone calls for a call centre.
Working from home, Freddie types on his computer using a stick he keeps in his mouth.
He believes it doesn’t help to live in the past, and he says that attitude has helped him make the most of the present.
“In the beginning, I thought I wouldn’t mind having the scenario all over again, but what good does that do me?”
* Freddie’s fund-raiser at the Portuguese Club, in Donagel Street, Rugby, on Saturday June 10, starts at 6.30pm. Call 083 411 0858 or go to Freddie’s fund-raiser Dinner and Dance Facebook page for details.