MY STORY | A car crash left me paralysed but I’m moving on with my life

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Pippa van Onselen and her daughters Bella, Lizzy and Maggie were involved in a motor accident. (PHOTO: Facebook / Van Onselen Family)
Pippa van Onselen and her daughters Bella, Lizzy and Maggie were involved in a motor accident. (PHOTO: Facebook / Van Onselen Family)

The family had enjoyed Mother’s Day lunch before heading out to drop off their eldest daughter at a friend’s house. It had been a good day, and they’d chatted about an upcoming wedding they were looking forward to, but everything changed in an instant. 

An unlicensed, drunk driver smashed into the van Onselens car, leaving mom Pippa van Onselen (39) paralysed from the waist down and two of her daughters severely injured.

READ MORE | ‘I feel so helpless’: Secunda woman opens up after ziplining accident leaves her paralysed

She shares her journey of physical and emotional healing. 

pippa van onselen, accident, icu
Pippa during her stay in the ICU. (PHOTO: Supplied)

“It happened on 14 May 2017. My ex-husband and I were on our way to drop-off my eldest, Bella (15), with a friend on a farm in Gaborone in Botswana, where we were living at the time. My other daughters, Maggie (13) and Lizzy (9), were in the car too when we were hit by another vehicle.

The impact was on the side of the car where I was sitting in front and Bella at the back. The girls weren’t wearing seatbelts and the car flipped twice.

On the second flip Bella was flung 40 metres out of the car and burst a lung when she hit the ground. Her right femur was fractured, and by the time she got to the clinic, her blood oxygen level was down to 14 percent. Maggie fractured her knee and jaw. Lizzy and my ex-husband James weren’t hurt. 

bella van onselen, icu, accident
Bella was seriously injured in the accident. (PHOTO: Supplied)

Moments before the crash I was aware that the other car was coming towards us, but I have no memory of what happened next. I was told that I was conscious and talking after we were hit, as James said he’d asked me if I was okay, and I told him my neck and back were sore, and to check on the girls. 

Two weeks after the crash the driver, who didn’t have a licence and had been drinking, admitted that he was also looking at his cellphone while driving. 

Bella and I spent two and a half months in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) and three months in a rehabilitation centre. Maggie spent three days in ICU, two days in the general ward and went home on crutches. 

I stopped breathing after being moved from ICU to the general ward and a tube had to be inserted down my throat to help me breathe. 

I don’t remember when the doctors told me I was paralysed. It was only after I went home that I realised I couldn’t move my legs. I’m paralysed from the waist down and have limited function in my hands. Screws were inserted into my spine and neck. 

Bella suffered brain damage in the crash which has affected her short-term memory. She also left the hospital in a wheelchair, but she can walk again. 

The girls and I moved from Botswana to Alberton in Gauteng in December 2018 because the rehabilitation facilities Bella and I needed are in Alberton. I attend physiotherapy and occupational therapy three times a week.   

van onselen family
Pippa is focusing on raising her three girls, Bella, Lizzy, and Maggie. (PHOTO: Van Onselen Family)

James and I were divorced the year after the accident, and I have been focusing on raising my girls. 

Two months ago, I started uploading videos to my YouTube channel, A Piece of Pippa. Sharing my story helps me heal. I don’t exactly know what my purpose in life is, but if I can inspire people and get them to appreciate life, then that’s a good thing. 

READ MORE | I was told I wouldn't walk again but I refused to believe it

At the end of this month, I will be doing a life coaching course. Last year I told God to just use me. I do have up and down days, but I try to stay positive. 

Bella and I often speak about who in the car we would give our injuries to, if we could. It’s always the same answer – we wouldn’t give it to anyone else as we are strong enough to handle it. Yes, I can’t use my legs and I am at times dependent on people, but I’m good and getting better. 

A friend of mine shared a quote which resonated with me, ‘Some things are too broken to be fixed, but not too broken to be repurposed.”

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