Palesa Manaleng Great Success After Bike Crash

One sunny day in September 2014 I said a short goodbye to my new housemates – a bunch of guys I’d only known for a couple of weeks – and headed off for a cycle around my neighbourhood, Westdene. Sport has always been my escape; when I was younger I did everything from tennis to swimming, but after school cycling became my sport of choice. There was something so freeing about it – the wind against my face when I picked up speed, watching the world blur by as I peddled – and a long cycle became my way of dealing with life. Ordinarily I’d head out to Roodepoort and Krugersdorp for a long ride but, for some reason, I decided to stay close to home that morning. The ride was like any other, until my brakes failed and I hit a pavement, which sent me flying into a palisade fence. I remember lying on the ground, thinking I’d have to walk my bike back home – but I couldn’t move my legs. It’s all hazy from there, and I think I must have blacked out; all that I can remember after that is waking up in a hospital bed, and the staff telling me I’d been badly injured.

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The day my life changed

I’d sustained a head injury, a spinal dislocation, broken ribs, a punctured lung and a shattered shoulder. Numerous surgeries followed, but the doctors told me the worst news: I had a T9/T10 spinal cord injury, which meant that I’d never walk again. I’d lost the use of everything below my waist, and I was a paraplegic. I was working as a journalist at the time of the accident but I was in no state to go back to the office. Because I wasn’t on medical aid, either, I spent five long months recovering at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Joburg.

It was the first time that I’d been in a government hospital, and the treatment I received from the nurses was nothing short of amazing. When my mom came to see me in hospital she pleaded with me to go back home to Witbank with her so she could look after me. But I’d worked so hard to get out of there, leaving home at 16, that to go back now, in a wheelchair and dependant on my parents, would be soul crushing. My best friend, Nozuko, agreed – she said I could either go home to be miserable and die, or I could stay in Joburg and learn how to take care of myself. She was right; there was never really any choice: I stayed and fought. After I was discharged from hospital, I spent two months in a rehabilitation centre, which is where I learnt how to mobilise myself using only my arms, and how to do everyday tasks from my chair.

I slowly gained more independence, but it was difficult – I had a few very dark moments, as nothing could have prepared me for my now drastically different life. When I finally returned home another big realisation hit: in rehab, if you are struggling with something there’s always someone there to help but now I truly was on my own. I remember the first time I tried to get myself on the loo. What many people may not know about paraplegics is that while our legs don’t work, the nerves still do, which means that leg spasms occur quite often. While I was moving myself from my chair onto the toilet, my legs twitched and I ended up on the floor. My ‘housemates’ actually lived on an adjacent property, and even though they were a few steps away from my front door I just couldn’t bring myself to call for their help. I’m very stubborn. Instead, I spent three days leopard crawling around my flat trying to pull myself up. After no food, no water, and quite a lot of mess, I finally admitted defeat. I called out for help and the guys came rushing over. Immediately I went out and bought myself a two-step stool so that, if (or – more likely – when) it happened again, I’d be able to use that to get back onto my bed, then into my chair.

New life, new rules

I may not have the use of my legs, but there’s very little I can’t do myself. I live on my own in a cottage in Westdene and I cook, I work as an online journalist for eNCA , and I do all of my own shopping – but something as simple as having a bath can take me up to three hours. I wheel myself up to the tub, get my chair at the perfect angle, before moving my bum onto the side of the bath using only my arms. Then I lower myself in, bath, and repeat the process in reverse to get out. Using the loo or getting in and out of bed are quite similar. Sometimes when I’m out shopping I have to ask fellow shoppers to pass me things from the higher shelves – quite something when I need a box of tampons and the only other person in the aisle is an older man! But I’ve learnt to speak up, say exactly what I want, and use the help that’s offered when I really need it. I’ve always been sporty and I wasn’t going to let the accident change that so, while recovering at home, I set myself challenges: today I’m going to wheel to the stop street and back. The next week I’d challenge myself to make it to the shop down the road and back – it felt good to be active again. I knew I couldn’t get back on my bike but surely I could do something? I looked into it and set my sights on wheelchair racing and hand-cycling. I do athletics training five days a week with a coach in Brixton and I rarely let anything keep me from the track. I often wheelie my way there and back, but if it’s been a tough session or it’s raining I catch a tuk-tuk. All the drivers in the area know me, so they help me get in the tuk-tuk and fold up my chair.

The right attitude

My housemates are more like family now. They keep tabs on me and make sure I don’t become a recluse, only focusing on my work or training – they even take me out clubbing! And Nozuko is still right by my side. She’s often the one who keeps me in good spirits and she doesn’t pity me or treat me any differently to before – if she thinks I’m wheeling myself too slowly she’ll tell me to hurry up. But not all my relationships escaped this phase of my life unscathed. Plenty of friends cut ties with me soon after the accident; many unfriended me on Facebook while I was still in hospital. Maybe seeing my broken body was too much to deal with, or they weren’t strong enough to stand by me. But it’s okay – when you come so close to death you realise the importance of surrounding yourself with the people that matter most.

Watch me shine

I’m chasing my dream of being the first South African female athlete to compete in both wheelchair racing and hand-cycling in the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020. There’s not much coverage on para-athletics even though we’re just as, if not more, competitive as able-bodied athletes. Funding is a constant struggle, as we often have to pay our own way to and from competitions, but I’m not going to let anything stop me – my wheels are my wings, now watch me fly.

source: Styles Star

Palesa Manaleng Great Success After Bike Crash

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