Young man discharged 482 days after paragliding accident

Kelvin van Baalen. (Photo: Supplied)
Kelvin van Baalen. (Photo: Supplied)

Kelvin van Baalen (22) spent 482 days in a hospital bed after suffering serious burn wounds in a paragliding accident last year when he flew into high-voltage electricity lines.

For months doctors feared for the life of the young paraglider. On 29 June last year, on the last day of the Barberton Paragliding Nationals, Kelvin suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over two-thirds of his body after he collided with high-voltage wires.

On the fateful day, Kelvin, an experienced paraglider, saw too late that he was headed for the electricity lines. He panicked and lost control of his paraglider. The voltage that shot through his body burnt his clothes off him and caused serious internal injuries.  

During his time in hospital Kelvin had to be resuscitated nine times when his heart stopped. He’s had more than 17 skin grafts, his organs started failing and he’d gone into septic shock more than once. He also survived multiple infections, a heart attack and hypoxia (oxygen shortage to areas of the body).

Against all odds, her son survived, says Leigh van Baalen (47). And now she barely has words to describe her joy, love and gratitude, she adds.

“There’s nothing I can say to completely express how grateful I am to finally bring my son home,” Leigh tells us about the moment on 24 October when Kelvin was discharged from hospital.

“It’s a miracle – that’s the only way to describe it. If you think of all the times we didn’t think he’d make it . . . Of all the nights of worry and hours spent next to his hospital bed. At one stage I didn’t know if he’d ever come home again. And here we are. What an incredible privilege.”

Kelvin was overjoyed to be back among his family and friends after such a long time, Leigh says.

“He was ecstatic – but he didn’t recognise the place. We’d started building a house around the time of the accident. And after such a long time, he can finally see his own, new home.”

Though there’s joy and excitement in the Van Baalen home over Kelvin’s return, there’s a long, gruelling rehabilitation process ahead, Leigh says. Kelvin sustained series muscle damage, especially to his one calf and hip.

“He’ll have to relearn how to walk and even to hold a pen to write. He still has tremors. The other day, while I was filling out his discharge papers at the hospital, Kelvin teased, ‘I don’t have to learn to write again – everything’s digital.’ But I pointed out that I was busy filling in forms by hand – there’s no computer for that.

“He’s becoming his old self again.”

Kelvin had been set to complete a BA degree with a psychology major at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) last year when the accident happened. He’s had to quit his studies while they determine how long his recovery will take.

Leigh praises Kelvin’s girlfriend, Robyn, who’s been faithfully visiting Kelvin in hospital the whole time. Robyn is a third-year homeopathy student. The two had known each other for just more than a month at the time of the accident.

“I honestly don’t know what we would’ve done without her,” Leigh says. “We’re grateful to so many people: family members, doctors, nurses, supporters. But to her especially – she was there through every setback, every tear shed and every small victory. It’s incredible to see how she’s standing by him.”

Despite the challenges they still face, Leigh says she’s ready for the next chapter: to support and help Kelvin through his rehabilitation.

“We can’t deny that there’s still an epic journey ahead. Kelvin will need rehabilitation, surgery, psychological help and neurologist visits for months to come. He still has open wounds that need cleaning and tending. He’s incredibly weak. He tires easily and is in constant pain.

“But for now, we want to celebrate the good news – because he’s home at last and that’s what we’d been hoping for for so long.”

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