Imagine not being able to move any part of your body except your head. You’re completely immobile, but not unaware. You have 20/20 vision. Your hearing is perfectly in tune. Your mind is alert. You can speak. You have very little sensation on your skin below your shoulders, but you can feel external pressure and internal pain. You have needs – thirst, hunger, warmth, comfort, company, stimulation and entertainment, but you’re unable to help yourself and you’re stuck alone with your thoughts. Emotions overwhelm you, but there is nothing… nothing you can do. You can’t wipe away your tears or rub the itch on your cheeks.
To be in a motionless state, trapped inside a paralysed body with nothing to do is hell on earth. No company. No radio, television, books, telephone or computer. Nothing, just you, staring into space. It’s how I imagine solitary confinement to be, but worse, because you’re not guilty of any horrific crime against humanity, so the punishment almost seems unjustified.
Phumla was given that life sentence, but she was only fourteen years old. Her life had barely begun, yet she’d already faced more challenges than most people do in a lifetime.
Phumla Innocententia Charles was born on 28 March, 1996 with a hole in her heart. She spent a great deal of her childhood in and out of hospitals. In 2010, she was in an ambulance, between Mbombela and Pretoria en route to see her specialist. The ambulance driver fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into the back of a truck. Phumla was left paralysed from the neck down, like me, and robbed of the best years of her life.
I only just met Phumla recently through her dedicated occupational therapist, Mariaan Teubes, who’d come seeking advice from me on the specific needs of quadriplegics. When I heard Phumla’s story and how she dreams of finishing school, I knew that I needed to get involved. Since my accident in 1998, the rapid advancement of technology had saved my sanity by restoring a small part of my independence. Therefore I had a clear understanding of the difference it could make in Phumla’s life.
At the beginning of this year, Phumla took a giant leap to do grade 10 via correspondence which is no easy commitment, not even for an able-bodied student. She relied on others to turn the pages of her books and scribes to write her assignments and exams. Her big, beautiful eyes and shy smile, despite her severe circumstances, immediately touched my heart and I knew that this young lady was special. So I posted an appeal on Facebook, hoping to find a willing Earth Angel to help us get Phumla a laptop, powerful enough to run the specialised voice activated software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This will enable her to, once again, do what most people take for granted – read, write and learn on her own without help.
Some very special Earth Angels answered my call.
Miles Crisp from the Tarsus Technology Group offered to donate a laptop. He set his Johannesburg team in motion, and before long the Nelspruit branch manager, Jacques Robinson delivered a brand-new, state-of-the-art laptop. Going the extra mile, Jacques has committed to walking (rolling) this journey with me to get Phumla set up with everything she may require from an IT point of view to follow her dream of getting her matric. He is also working on getting her quality broadband connectivity at home, which will grant her the privilege of being able to do her own research for future school projects. She’ll also be able to navigate social media and thus engage with others who live with similar physical circumstances and find much-needed emotional support. She’ll be able to cultivate personal and intimate relationships and not feel so isolated. In time she will be able to work and contribute meaningfully to society and, once again, truly live.
Computer whiz, fourteen-year-old Ernst van der Merwe gave up some of his holiday to help me teach Phumla to use her new voice programme. He also loaded the WhatsApp web version onto her laptop. The smile on her face when she sent her very first message on her own was priceless.
Some of my amazing Facebook friends also made generous donations to fulfil some of Phumla’s other needs because they don’t stop at a laptop.
There aren’t enough words to express gratitude to the Earth Angels who give of themselves, physically, emotionally and financially to make a difference.
Look out world, Phumla Charles is on her way.