Ten years ago, 21-year-old Schalk van der Merwe was thrown off his motorbike when a car swerved in front of him, and he was then driven over by an SUV. Doctors said that he would never survive his injuries. Schalk not only proved them wrong, but also went on to finish his tourism studies and find work as a wine advisor in Stellenbosch.
The motorbike crash in 2008 left Schalk with a broken back and severe brain injuries. Schalk’s mother, Sanet van der Merwe, says that doctors told the family that there was no hope of him surviving.
“They said they weren’t even going to try and operate on him. They couldn’t pick up any activity from his brain and he was being kept alive by machines.”
His family prayed for a miraculous recovery. A few days later, Schalk started breathing by himself. After 32 days in a coma, he woke up, although he was a very different person to the energetic, sporty young man he had been before the accident.
“He was basically a vegetable, with a blank look on his face. He couldn’t walk or speak. His left arm was completely paralysed because all the nerves had been destroyed. The nurses at the hospital told us to just leave him there and let them take care of him, because everyone said he would be this way for the rest of his life,” says Sanet.
Schalk spent months in hospital, and slowly began recovering some of his brain functions. He says that when he became strong enough to start rehabilitation, he had to start his life again.
“I had to learn to walk and talk again; I was literally starting my life from scratch.”
A few years later, thanks to intensive rehabilitation, Schalk was walking and talking again.
“I remember walking back into the hospital where I had been treated. The staff couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Nobody expected that I would make a recovery.”
At the time of the accident, Schalk was studying a BCom degree at the University of Stellenbosch. Despite memory damage, constant pain, and a paralysed arm, he decided that he wanted to start studying again. This time he chose tourism, something that he knew he would be interested in. He says that his memory issues made studying an immense challenge, but he managed to find ways around this.
“When I studied for exams, I would make up funny stories which I linked to my work. I repeat them over and over again so that they can be committed to my long-term memory.”
In 2017, Schalk completed his N6 Tourism course at Oxbridge Academy.
“The support I received from Oxbridge Academy has been a very big contributor towards passing my course. Everyone was extremely helpful and assisted me a lot with some of the subjects I was struggling to pass,” says Schalk.
Schalk is currently working as a wine advisor at the Delheim Estate in Stellenbosch. He says that he will soon apply for a job at a travel agency, and he also aims to get a national diploma in tourism. Schalk’s inspirational story shows us that no matter how difficult our circumstances, we can overcome them.
“If you decide to never, ever give up, you can overcome huge obstacles,” says Schalk.
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