‘I didn’t know an 11-year-old could be this strong’ – Dad after daughter loses her arm

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Clarissa van Staden. (PHOTO: Supplied)
Clarissa van Staden. (PHOTO: Supplied)

We’re telephonically speaking to Johan van Staden, aka JJ, from the Netcare Rehabilitation Centre in Auckland Park, Johannesburg where he’s at.

“We’re not thinking of the what ifs. My child is alive and that’s a miracle,” JJ tells YOU.

It’s been just more than two week since the boating accident on the Hartbeespoort Dam where his daughter Clarissa’s arm was severed.

The family, from Schoemansville near Hartbeespoort, have been staying in a Johannesburg guest house to be near Clarissa. The 11-year-old is in Grade 6 at Laerskool Generaal Hendrik Schoeman.

“It feels as if it happened a lot longer ago,” JJ says of that fateful Saturday, 15 February.

JJ (42) has just come from a counselling session with a social worker and his wife, René (33), is currently in a session. He says they’re still trying to come to terms with everything that’s happened.

“It’s a massive thing – you’ll only understand if you have children. It’s all very upsetting but we have to stay strong for Clarissa,” he says.

JJ is a project manager at an electrical company in Pretoria while René is an administrative assistant who works from home. The couple, Clarissa, her brother Juvan (4), as well as a friend of Clarissa’s had been on the dam when the freak accident happened barely 200m from shore.

They suspect the motorboat they were on hit a submerged tree trunk. Everyone was unscathed except Clarissa, who’d been sitting right at the back. She was flung off the back and the boat’s propeller severed her arm.

“The children loved going out on the dam on weekends. It was a normal family activity. When the accident happened, Clarissa, still lying in the boat, immediately said, ‘Dad, please sell the boat’.

“A lot of people say if you fall off a bike you should just get back on. But I told my child I’d sell the boat and buy her two horses with the money.”

Everyone’s still traumatised and even Juvan goes to a play group for counselling. Juvan, who’d been strapped into a chair, was the only one who hadn’t been flung from the boat.

“Everything’s still a blur, it feels unreal. We went out at 10am until about 12pm then we spent some time in a swimming pool where the kids played and swam. At about 2pm we started thinking of going back out on the boat – it’s nice to watch the sunset from the boat. But we’d barely left shore when it happened.

“I didn’t see it coming – I couldn’t. It’s not like swerving for a taxi or something on the road, where I could’ve done something to prevent the accident. I couldn’t do anything.”

The trunk they think caused the accident had been submerged, invisible. As soon as it happened, they could see Juvan and Clarissa’s friend were okay but they immediately realised Clarissa was hurt. They managed to get her back on the boat and called for help in the direction of the other boats on the dam.

“I didn’t always believe miracles but one of the people who came to help us happened to be a theatre nurse. She’s from Johannesburg and was there on a family weekend. She later told us she hadn’t really felt like going but decided at the last minute to go.

“I believe she saved our child’s life. She contacted all the emergency services and the Netcare helicopter. When we got back to shore, it looked like a Christmas tree [from the emergency services’ lights].”

Clarissa was flown to the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg where she was kept in a medical coma for the first three days. Her body responded well to the treatment and she didn’t contract any infections. Surgery was performed on the Thursday following the accident.

Her arm had to be amputated just above the elbow. Clarissa was transferred to the rehabilitation centre this week. She’s working hard with a team of physio- and occupational therapists, psychologists and doctors to prepare her for her new life.

“You’ll see a smile on my child’s face in every picture. I didn’t think an 11-year-old could be this strong. It’s as if I’ve only learned now how strong my child truly is.

“She was left-handed and she lost her left arm but her biggest goal now is to become fully functional with a prosthesis. If they give her 10 exercises to do, she does each one two or three extra times. She’s destined for greater things.”

He says the community has been amazing in their support. A fun run to raise funds is already planned for this weekend at Hartbeespoort Dam. The bionic prosthesis will cost around R500 000.

“With this much support and so many prayers we can’t hide in a corner, depressed. When Clarissa shows any signs of becoming despondent, I read her the messages of support.”

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