Former youth leader and model UEL, 31, was born in Durban, an only brother to three sisters, and moved to Cape Town nine years ago. Once an adventure-camp organiser and outdoor enthusiast who modelled both locally and overseas for nearly 10 years, Uel’s life changed in 2011 when he broke his neck and was left paralysed from the chest down. Here he describes a typical day in his life to PAM BAILIE…
Former youth leader and model Uel Maree says he experienced extraordinary peace during the trauma of breaking his neck.
’I usually wake up at about 7am because by then my body’s had enough sleep. Since the accident, my metabolism and blood circulation have slowed down. This, coupled with my inability to move around much, adjust the blankets or move my pillow, all adds to physical restlessness. I use my time alone in the mornings to pray. For the first six months after my accident all I prayed for was healing, and though I still trust God, I don’t need to bash His door down every moment about it! I pray for family and friends, our country and President Zuma. I pray for celebrities a lot, too, as they influence the masses.
My dad comes in at 7.30am to open my curtains, help me sit up and do some stretches. Later, my ‘Swiss Army knife’ mom turns me onto my side, stretches my legs and sets up my iPad in front of me on a stand. At the moment I’m watching a sermon series by Keith Moore and my go-to guys are Tim Keller and David Pawson. I can only use one finger, but that’s all I need for my iPad!
I read many online articles covering the full spectrum: from religion to politics to human rights to business and science. Before my accident I wasn’t much of an entrepreneur, but now I need to think outside the box. I’ve learnt about the stock market, looked into solutions to beat load-shedding and dabbled in selling insurance, but I now work for a wonderful UK-based company called Accessible Accommodation (www.accomable.com) which finds and lists disabled friendly holiday accommodation around the globe. We have listings in more than 60 countries but I’m mainly in charge of Africa. I sometimes speak at events but I’m no motivational speaker. I’m just a guy with a story of how I’m on a journey trying to figure out life.
Uel loved Cape Town’s varied outdoor life.
I broke my neck on December 15, 2011. I was a leader at a youth camp and it was a day like any other. I had a bounce in my step, the sun was shining and strength flowed through my limbs. We were building a raft and, when it was launch time, I dived in as I’d done many times before. This time, as my hands dipped below the water, they struck a hard object and my head followed straight into something hard. I realised I’d messed up badly but there was no pain as I lay there holding my breath, face down in the water and unable to turn over. I could hear a couple of the campers saying, ‘Uel’s just playing a joke.’
If someone had told me, ‘Uel, this afternoon you’re going to break your neck and be paralysed’, I would have freaked out. Yet at the moment the bones crunched in my neck, I had this peace enter and calm me like I’ve never experienced before. I know that peace came from God. Even now after three years, though I’m not thrilled by my current situation, that peace is still with me and keeps me going.
I was hauled out and operated on and woke up five days later. Through a haze of medication I finally understood I had broken my C5 vertebra. A couple of specialists gave the prognosis of ‘you’ll never recover’, but their words never penetrated my thick skull. I’m all for being real about a situation and not having false hope, but they don’t realise how strong the body and mind are, and how miracles happen all the time.
For the first six months I couldn’t move much. But then every couple of weeks I’d wake up and something new could move. One morning, I woke up and my wrists could move, then my triceps, and on another my stomach muscles started working… But what I get most excited about is my growth as an individual. I’m so thankful for a sound mind and its connection to my spirit.
As a family, we try to go out every now and then. Both the mountain and ocean work wonders: parking off at Muizenberg Beach is good for my soul. However, getting me into a car is no simple task. At six foot two, I have to be contorted by my parents into some strange positions! I ‘ve joined a local church and I see my core friends once a week at our fellowship group, while other friends pop in every now and then for a catch-up. My sisters all live in other cities but they visit as often as possible. It’s always great to see people in between physio, movie evenings and naptime!
Before his accident, Uel and friends threw a Christmas party for the children at Maitland Cottage. Today he says of this memory: ‘What a wonderful experience. We thought we’d be blessing them but those kids blessed us!’
Of course, I wanted that instant miracle from the day of my accident but it didn’t happen. Without getting too theological: can God heal me? Yes. Did Jesus ever refuse to heal someone? No. That’s all I need. I’m using my time now to learn and grow because all I’m going through now is just building a better me for tomorrow.
Lights out is normally about 10.30pm. It may sound clichéd, but I recite Psalm 23 a couple of times and then normally doze off.’