“We feel like a prisoners in our own houses” – mother and daughter who are stuck in their beds because of their weight

Betty Shabangu. (Photo: DRUM)
Betty Shabangu. (Photo: DRUM)

Gogo Betty Shabangu is heartsore. It’s been years since she’s seen her daughter, Anna Tshabalala, and she’s losing hope she’ll ever see her child again. It’s not that Anna lives far away or doesn’t want to see her mother.

In fact, Betty (69) and Anna (51) live only a few streets apart in Tsakane, east of Johannesburg, but they might as well be living on different continents. Both women are trapped in their homes, imprisoned by cruel twists of fate and genetics that have made them prisoners in their own bodies.

“I really miss my baby girl. I only see pictures on the phone because I am stuck in this house,” Betty tells DRUM. It’s been nearly 20 years since the gogo has been able to move around on her own. Her weight and leg injuries make it nearly impossible for her to get out of bed, much less leave her house. She doesn’t know how much she weighs but the last time she was weighed, “a few years ago”, she was “around the 400kg mark”, Betty tells us.

The battle to lose weight has been a big part of both of their lives for many years. Betty has been following a low-carb eating programme since last October and, although she’s been unable to weigh herself, she thinks it’s helping.

 “I’ve cut fat, carbs and starch. I eat only veggies, fruit and boiled meat,” she says. Anna’s weight, as well as the after-effects of surviving two car crashes, have trapped her in her bedroom too.

She has no idea what she weighs as her scale only goes up to 180kg. She looks bigger than her mom and, like Betty, she’s desperate to get out of her house.

“I’m trying everything, from injections to the Banting diet, but the skin between my legs is hardening,” she says, tears running down her face.

Betty heard a cracking noise when she stood up from her couch to go to bed one night in 2001.

 “I was watching TV in the lounge and when I stood up to go to the bedroom, I heard the sound of something breaking. I fell back on the sofa. Suddenly I couldn’t move my legs,” she tells us.

Her late husband William was in the lounge with her. At first he thought she was joking but soon realised his wife really couldn’t stand up. The pain in her legs was “excruciating”, she recalls, and William took her to hospital, the first of many trips to the emergency room.

Initially, doctors didn’t know what had caused her to collapse and she was simply prescribed painkillers and given a pair of crutches. When things worsened she went to a different hospital, where doctors were again unable to diagnose what was wrong.

A gruelling six months later doctors at the Clinix Botshelong Empilweni Hospital in Vosloorus discovered Betty had broken both her legs.

“When my left leg broke my entire weight was transferred to my right side causing my right leg to break as well,” Betty says. She was transferred to Life The Glynnwood hospital in Benoni for knee replacement surgery but after the operation she still couldn’t walk.

“I went for physiotherapy but I quit because it wasn’t working. I was also scared my legs were going to break again,”

Betty says. Her granddaughter, Thando (20), takes care of her gogo. She was six years old when she moved in with Betty and keeps the house clean and prepares meals every day. Thando finished school last year and hopes to study nursing. Obesity runs in their family, Betty says.

Her grandmother, Elizabeth Mabena, was housebound for 12 years before she died at age 103 in 1996.

 “Her heart was strong but her bones couldn’t carry her body,” Betty says.

Anna’s nightmare began a few months before her mom broke her legs when she was involved in a car crash on her way home from work with her husband, Mandla Tshabalala, who died in 2017 at age 55.

Anna Tshabalala

“I was in pain for a long time but I didn’t know where I was injured,” she says.

She says it took Pholosong Hospital in Tsakane seven years to give her a diagnosis, and she had hip replacement surgery on her left hip in 2007.

 “I was not as flexible as I had been before but life was back to normal,” she tell us. “I was able to walk and drive myself to work”.

She soon started having difficulty walking again and doctors told her her right hip needed to be replaced too.

Then, 10 years later, she was in another crash when an armoured truck crashed into her parked car at a shopping mall.

“The vehicle knocked my car and dragged it with me inside.”

The damage was severe. “I went to Tambo Memorial Hospital. I had fractured my right hip, which caused the replacement to shift.”

Doctors said they couldn’t operate because Anna was too heavy and needed to lose weight.

“I cry every day looking at what my life has become. I have to sit like this every day staring at this mirror,” she says, pointing to the dressing table opposite her bed.

“Through this mirror I see my life becoming useless every day. I want to get up and go but I can’t.”

Anna used to work at a laundromat in Boksburg as a tailor and should be eligible for compensation from the Road Accident Fund (RAF).

When DRUM contacted the RAF to ask why she has not been able to get an RAF certificate, RAF acting chief marketing officer Adriaan Taljaard says the RAF has considered the fault element and issatisfied with that aspect of the claim but it is still in the process of considering its liability before dealing with the quantum of the claim (the total amount paid out by the RAF based on assessment of the claim).

That’s no comfort for Anna. Her life, she says, has become a curse – for her and for others: “I have to call my family to come lock me inside because I am scared. They come and open during the day. I feel like a prisoner in my own house.”

On the day we meet Anna, her sister, Lydia Mahlangu (53) is there. “I come here to help her and my mother but I also have a house in Mpumalanga and I have to go back,” Lydia tells us.

“We’ve been looking for a helper but no one wants to work for free.”

When Anna needs to go to hospital, three ambulances and a fire truck have to come to her tiny house to help her.

“I think the paramedics will soon refuse to come here because it’s a mission to even get the stretcher out. I feel like I am a burden to everyone,” she says.

Anna is desperate to lose weight. Like her mom, she is following a low-carb diet and a dietician regularly administers apetite-suppressant injections.

“I pay R800 a month for the injections. I had to change my diet to veggies and no starch. If I can get rid of this extra fat I think they’d be able to fix the hip replacement.”

The tears start streaming down Anna’s face again.

“I am always depressed. I’m too young to be living like this.”

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