'His brain isn’t reacting to anything': Family of bee attack victim forced to make some tough decisions

By Jana van der Merwe
23 November 2016

Once-strapping Gert is still in a vegetative condition.

It is now just over a year since an angry swarm of bees attacked the lively and active Gert van der Merwe during a jog on a farm outside Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit).

Gert (44) friend Juanita du Plooy (then 43) and oldest son Gert Jnr (then 19) who were also attacked on the Fredenheid estate, where the bees are used for pollination in the macadamia orchards, made a full recovery but Gert’s family had to make the heartbreaking decision to place him in an institution.

After his mother, Marika van der Merwe (64), kept vigil at his bedside for months she has until now cared for him herself at her home in Ladybrand in the East Free State.

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“Gert is still in a vegetative condition, but now his brain isn’t reacting to anything. I understand that he can now only differentiate between light and dark,” she says over the phone from Ladybrand.

YOU reported on the tragedy in February. Gert, Juanita and Gert Jnr had no way of knowing that workers had disturbed the bees just before.

Marika, Gert and his friend Juanita. PHOTO: Mduduzi Ndzingi Marika, Gert and his friend Juanita. PHOTO: Mduduzi Ndzingi

Even though they ran into a nearby irrigation canal, which was about hip-deep, the thousands of bees attacked them every time they lifted their heads of the water for air.

Gert apparently saved the lives of Juanita and his son Gert Jnr. He yelled to his son to run away from the swarm. After taking off his t-shirt and using it to cover Juanita’s head he braved the worst of the attack as he tried to keep her under the water as much as possible. Gert’s youngest son, Jaco (15) escaped the attack that day because he ran ahead.

Workers loaded Gert and co and took them to the house. Gert, an asthma sufferer who wasn’t previously allergic to bees, had trouble breathing.

Gert Jnr, whose eyes were almost swollen closed, drove over pavements with Jaco’s help, to get to the hospital as quickly as he could. At that point Gert was already blue in the face due to the lack of oxygen.

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Emergency personnel spent 12 minutes trying to revive him after his heart stopped beating. The thousands of bee stings could be pulled off his skin like a peel. Juanita and Gert jr had also been bitten thousands of times but recovered quickly in hospital.

When we visited Gert in February it seemed as though Gert could follow movement with his eyes, even though he had little brain function left.

Gert before the attack. PHOTO: Supplied Gert before the attack. PHOTO: Supplied

Marika explains that this isn’t the case anymore. Although his other organs function perfectly, she can tell the Gert has no idea what’s going on around him. He’s also lost a great deal of weight since we last visited them. The once sturdy, athletic man now barely weighs 50 kg.

His mother says that she realises he isn’t getting any younger and a more permanent plan for his care needs to be out into place. The family has decided to move him to a home, where he can be close to Juanita and his sons.

“Juanita visits him almost every day, but for the boys it’s difficult to see their father like this,” says Marika.

She says that she trained Juanita and the staff at the facility herself so that Gert can be kept as comfortable as possible. This is all that anyone can do for him at this stage.

“Gert can’t stand the dark. We keep the lights dimmed at night, that way he sleeps more peacefully.”

“It was a difficult farewell,” she says. And about the months she spent caring for her son herself: “I have peace in my heart. It was a privilege to be able to do it for him.”

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