Tenacious mother of two embraces life after a spinal cord injury (SCI)
Written by Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital
When 34-year-old police officer Ntsako Mathebula set out for a routine patrol with her colleagues one quiet spring morning in 2022, it felt like any other day. Little did this fit and active mother of three know that it would be the last day she would ever have use of her legs.
While on duty, Ntsako sustained a bullet wound to her back, resulting in severe abdominal injuries, a collapsed lung and, most devastatingly, irreversible damage to her spinal cord, leaving her paralysed from the midback downwards.
Ntsako recalls the moment her life changed when she and her colleagues pulled up to a garage in a residential area where, unbeknownst to them, a robbery was underway. They immediately came under fire. While Ntsako and her partner survived, tragically, their commander was critically wounded and died in hospital.
“All the while, I was praying to God, saying, ‘I am not ready to come to you yet’. After the incident I was in a lot of pain and could not feel my legs, but I was grateful to be alive,” Ntsako says.
She was taken to Netcare Milpark Hospital and once stabilised, the extent of her injuries was determined. The bullet had gone right through Ntsako’s spine to her small intestine and the damage to her spine was irreversible. After moving to Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, the reality began to sink in.
“At first, I was in denial,” Ntsako recalls. “I kept thinking the feeling would return to my legs and life would go back to normal. But the first time I was pushed in a wheelchair, it felt real. I tried to keep my spirits up, smiling every day and encouraging myself, but it was very hard, knowing how easy it was before to do something as simple as sitting up. As a previously fit and active person, I now had to learn how to sit up.”
Dr Aneesa Khan, a general practitioner with special interest in rehabilitation at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, explains that a primary concerns is sensory impairment, which prevents paraplegic patients from feeling pain or sensing limb position. This can lead to pressure sores.
“Pressure sores can become infected and be fatal if left untreated,” Dr Aneesa says. “After sustaining an injury like Ntsako’s, it is important to get the patient out of bed and moving as soon as possible to avoid this.”
Patients are also at risk of osteoporosis due to the lack of movement. Dr Aneesa explains: “[This] makes you far more susceptible to bone fractures if you have a fall – again, you may not be immediately aware of this since you cannot feel the pain.”
“Lack of sensation also affects bladder and bowel control, and it is essential for patients to get onto a scheduled plan so that they can manage this,” she adds.
“Nerve pain is another major concern and the medications for managing this pain are limited. Physical and psychological therapy are important in helping patients to manage their pain and the process of acceptance,” Dr Aneesa says.
“The SCI experience is multi-faceted, and we therefore work in a multidisciplinary team to give patients the strongest foundation for moving forward and having a full and happy life,” she concludes.
Trinesh Baroon, a physiotherapist at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, notes that the mental shift for SCI patients is an enormous challenge. Ntsako has shown herself to be a remarkably tenacious, highly motivated person.
“By the time I saw her, Ntsako had already made tremendous progress, but the move home can be challenging as it is a very different environment. You go from having round-the-clock care to being responsible for your daily needs,” Trinesh says.
“In fact, she went in person to her healthcare funder to motivate her case to receive outpatient care as she is so determined to recover to the best of her ability. Her bravery and determination will influence the lives of people she will never even meet because she has helped to pave the way for others in similar circumstances,” he adds.
“We have worked a lot on strength and endurance, and have been doing therapeutic standing to try to build up her blood pressure,” Trinesh comments. This will prevent low blood pressure and vertigo. Trinesh continues: “It requires continued commitment, and Ntsako has fully embraced that, taking ownership of her rehabilitation – and this is when we see the most successful outcomes.”
Ntsako notes that while the adjustment to this new way of life is emotionally challenging, she feels a great sense of relief and comfort in being able to talk about it with her social worker and her loved ones.
“Talking openly about my experience is helping me to relate to my family in a new way. I feel that I have been able to process what has happened emotionally. My goal is now to master the physical aspects of living back at home so that I can care for myself and also my family,” Ntsako says.
“I have learned from this experience that there are some things you cannot change, but you can always change your mind. It is all about attitude. I am looking forward to going back to work in an administrative role. I am ready to start afresh, and am still inspired to do good and make a difference,” she concludes.