Photographer Chania Rens and Liezl Swanepoel talk about overcoming challenges with an indomitable spirit … and a smile
Paralysis is defined as the loss of function in one or more muscles, often caused by injury to the spinal column or by illness. It is very easy to talk about the condition in detached, clinical medical terms, but the definition does not begin to describe the overwhelming depression, anxiety and sense of helplessness experienced by patients as they hear a doctor say: “You won’t be able to walk again.”
Liezl Swanepoel was involved in a motorcycle accident on August 2, 2017, when she was riding home on her Harley-Davidson. She was struck by a car that had veered into her lane.
The accident left her a partial quadriplegic, with paralysis along the left side of her body. In the blink of an eye, she went from being a mountain biker, a Harley rider, a gardener, a gun instructor, a weight trainer, a hunter and a dancer to a wheelchair user. Her whole life changed, her passions lying just beyond reach.
How do you go from being a woman constantly on the move, with freedom and independence to being reliant on your friends and family, with weekly doctors’ visits and physical therapy sessions? In Liezl’s case, she has achieved this with a smile and a strength that is beyond comprehension.
“Many people will tell me that I am such an inspiration; they ask me how I am able to smile through all of this? Well, I wasn’t given a choice,” Liezl says. People will often focus on the negatives of this condition, the tragedy of their lives changed forever. Liezl decided to see it otherwise. As a result of her accident, Liezl has experienced the gift of growth, of appreciation, of meeting angels on earth, of understanding, and of learning what is most important in life.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she has decided to use her condition to help others in the same situation. When people see her they automatically assume that her upper body is strong, but she has had to learn to deal with the nerve damage in her arms and hands that make it difficult to manoeuvre her wheelchair.
Many of her symptoms are hidden from view, the intense neuro pain from simply washing her hands and sporadic uncontrollable shaking of her hands when she tries to brush her teeth. She plans her day carefully around her activities, the clothing she’ll require and whether she’ll need to self-catheter.
While dealing with all of these challenges, Liezl also has to overcome the urge to hide her body, which has been transformed from being super-fit to something that she has no control over.
Almost a year later, Liezl has acknowledged her own beauty (as well as the beauty of those in a similar situation). She says: “Your beauty does not depend on your ability to walk, it comes from inside. From facing the world and embracing the new normal, you must now get used to living. Your beauty comes from the kindness you show to others in the face of adversity. The ugliest thing I have ever seen is a human without compassion, but those with compassion can change a gloomy day into something you start to crave.”
She has slowly started doing things in life that she loves. While she can’t ride a bike (yet!), she has focused on pushing herself on the shooting range. She is finding a new way to do things that she wants to do – sitting down.
Of course, it’s not easy every day: there are times when she does not want to be productive and just wants to hide from the world because of the pain and emotion.
On those days, she doesn’t want sympathy. She doesn’t want to hear doctors saying that they simply don’t know if or when … On days like those, Liezl quietly gives thanks for another day. Living her life to the fullest and with no regrets.
Location: Harley-Davidson, Pretoria.
Hair, makeup and beauty: Megan van Niekerk from Andre Green Hair Design.