From wheelchair to steering wheel – my path less travelled

My name is Sanien de Beer, and this is my story. I am a phytotherapist by profession, practising in Somerset West. Most people aren’t familiar with this profession, which is the study and practice of clinical herbal medicine. This chosen career has allowed me to give expression to the passion that I have always had for people and health.

My story doesn’t follow a typical pattern. After school I worked and studied overseas for a number of years, and it was only at the age of 34 that I followed my true calling and embarked on the full-time study of phytotherapy.

In my second year of study (phytotherapy is a five-year programme at the University of the Western Cape), my life path yet again took an unexpected turn. I had been experiencing continued pain in my neck and back and a weakness in my limbs that wouldn’t go away. In August 2009, I was diagnosed with Tranverse Myelitis, which is a condition that damages the myelin sheaths around the spinal cord and impedes mobility. Quite quickly after diagnosis I became wheelchair dependent. During 2010, while still continuing my studies, I received intensive rehabilitation and was able to regain most of my hand functions. To this day, however, I remain in a wheelchair.

There were many challenges that I experienced while studying and undertaking the requisite community service, where I found that institutions and community neighbourhoods aren’t wheelchair friendly. But with the help of friends and family it was possible to get around and lead an active life – despite “sitting down”.

My life had changed in a profound way, and I needed to adapt to changes on many different levels. The idea of driving again was not the highest priority on my list. To be quite honest, I didn’t even think it was a possibility. However, through contact with other wheelchair users, I began to realise that driving was something that I could do – just in a different way!   Four years after becoming a wheelchair user I felt that I was ready to embark on the “driving- challenge” and started looking for a suitable vehicle. Embarking on my private practice also made driving a priority, given that I would be required to do home visits with patients living in outlying communities.

I heard about Nicky’s Drive through Senecio, a Somerset West-based non-profit company that provides support for people with disabilities.  Nicky’s Drive was able to provide financial assistance for Gracie’s car adaptations. If you’re wondering who Gracie is, she is my 2009 white Honda Jazz which I so-named as a symbol to me of the Grace and Mercy that have made me independent again. Easy Drive in Somerset West did the adaptations and I was ready to drive!

And then again, yet another life challenge: I have small hands! This meant that it was initially more challenging for me to manage the steering wheel with only one hand. But with the assistance of my therapist, Annatjie van Niekerk, I learned new skills to make the process easier.

A big challenge in driving has been CONFIDENCE.  I drove before my illness, but not having driven for four years was not the best confidence builder.  It is important for me to be a responsible driver – and with patience and practice that is slowly restored.

I am grateful for the assistance I received from Nicky’s Drive and hope I will be able to “pay it forward” some time to also enable other people the experience of independence again!