SEUGNET MOGGEE of Harfield Village in Cape Town grew up in Riebeeckstad in South Africa’s Free State, the eldest of four children. Her father was a construction manager and her mother an administrative clerk. She attended Riebeeckstad Primary and Secondary Schools, where she was head and deputy head girl respectively. She then moved to the University of the Free State to study law. In her third year of studies, she had a serious car accident that changed her life. Here Seugnet, 32, talks to JILL BADER about living with the consequences, her subsequent romance and what keeps her going.
As a student, lawyer Seugnet Moggee was paralysed from the hips down by a car accident | Photo: Tonya Hester
‘I was always a go-getter. I had a huge drive to achieve and compete. I was a sprinter and played provincial netball. I was also very outgoing and loved people.
My parents divorced when I was five and later my mom’s second marriage failed, so there wasn’t money for university. I asked my mom’s parents if they would sign surety for me, but my grandfather refused to do that and said he’d pay for me instead. I’m so grateful for the opportunity my grandparents gave me! They even took me, with all my belongings, in their VW kombi from Riebeeckstad to Bloemfontein, and helped me move in. During my first year of law my grandfather passed away and my granny continued to support me.
During my first year at varsity I was handed a form by a hostel senior who asked me to enter the university rag queen competition. I thought, ‘Let me do this’, and it happened, I was crowned 2004 Rag Queen! I was delighted but also humbled: I hadn’t thought I would win.
Esti, one of the Rag Queen finalists, encouraged me to go to church with her. I’d grown up in the Dutch Reformed Church, knew all the bible stories and used to pray at times, but a relationship with God was just never there and I always found a reason not to go to church. Eventually, however, I decided to go to church with Esti. I remember feeling that everyone there would judge me because, in my mind, not all my boxes were ticked: I felt I hadn’t been doing the things God expected of me, like going to church regularly. At some point during the service, they asked anyone who wanted to accept God to pray, and it was as though something just grabbed my heart, touching the untouchable places of my soul. I just knew I needed to give my life over to Him. I hadn’t had that feeling before but I realised I’d always yearned for a relationship with God, and wanted my life to follow His.
I met with one of the church elders afterwards and prayed with him but my life wasn’t dramatically different after that. I still went out with my friends and just carried on as normal. I didn’t make a big deal out of it or join a church. But a longing to spend time with God, to get to know Him better, was burning strong inside me.
In May of my third year at varsity, a friend turned 21 and her parents invited her friends to their ‘river house’ in Kimberley for a weekend of waterskiing. I was in one of two cars returning to university on the Sunday night. We had had such a wonderful weekend, we were all tired but happy.
About 35km outside Bloemfontein, a broken-down bakkie[van] had been left in the middle of the road on a blind rise. The driver had abandoned the vehicle there without hazard lights or a triangle sign. Our friends in the first car tried to call us, but none of us in the second car had our phones on. I was in the back seat behind the driver and was dozing off when we approached the bakkie. It’s so weird, at that moment I had a dream about an accident that was going to happen. The next thing I heard was my friend, who was driving, say: ‘Onsgaan ’n ongelukmaak’ (‘We’re going to have an accident’). We would have hit the bakkie if she hadn’t pulled the car out of the way in time. To avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming car, she then swerved back onto the left-hand side of the road but lost control. The car rolled down a slope and I remember hearing breaking metal and glass.
Two of my friends were thrown out of the car and cut very badly with broken glass. Simoné, in the front passenger seat, broke her back and both her shoulder blades. They fixed them later with plates and screws. Hetta, who was in the back with me, also broke her back. She was in a wheelchair in the beginning, but later started walking with crutches and more recently got married and had a baby! Luckily, the friend driving the car didn’t get hurt at all.
As for me, I felt like a rag doll being flung around the car. It felt as if it went on forever, even though it was so quick. When the car came to a standstill in a field, I was immediately aware I had no feeling in my legs. It felt as if the lower half of my body was cut off. I used my hands to try and feel if it was still there because it felt severed, just not there. I remember then saying to God: ‘Not my legs, please just not my legs’, as if I already knew. I asked Him to heal me because I felt that I wouldn’t be able to deal with this. I was so scared. My upper body was twisted one way. I pulled myself up on the door handle. The pain was excruciating, it felt as if my organs had burst and I was bleeding to death inside. It was really, really, really bad.
When an ambulance got to us, a paramedic stood outside the car and talked to me, trying to keep me awake, I think. They cut me out of the wreck, pushed a wooden plank underneath me and pulled me out, which was agony. In the ambulance I just about crushed the hand of the poor paramedic who went with me because I was holding on so tight. With every bump of the road, pain shot through me. I begged him to give me something for the pain but he couldn’t before I was examined.
From head girl to rag queen: the young Seugnet (left) was riding high.
In the emergency room, they examined each one of us. They asked me where the pain was and then, just like that, they cut my jeans off. My back was completely broken, as well as two ribs, and I had a lung contusion. I don’t remember the next few days but I know that some friends established a trust fund for me to help with the bills as I didn’t have medical aid, and my uncle paid the money necessary for the operation. All three of us were operated on that night by a brilliant doctor.
The three of us were in ICU for about seven days and in high care for another week, then Hetta and I went into rehab for a month. I wore a back brace for six months. We all instituted claims against the Road Accident Fund and were successful, which helped us adjust to our new lives by paying for equipment, loss of future earnings and medical care, but it will never, ever bring back what we lost.
I knew a guy called De Wet from university. He came to visit us in hospital and asked a friend of his, Hanro, to come with him. Hanro told De Wet that he’d rather not come because he didn’t know us, and didn’t like hospitals. Eventually, however, he gave in and arrived with a card he’d picked out and written in. I had a real connection with Hanro when we met. He was a tall, dark, handsome guy, very introverted but with a wonderful sense of humour, and really concerned for all us girls. He would come to the rehab centre for eight hours at a time just to encourage us. One of his favourite movies was Patch Adams, a movie starring Robin Williams, who uses humour to help heal his patients. Hanro had hoped for the opportunity to be a Patch Adams in somebody’s life and only realised later on that coming to see us girls was that ‘Patch Adams moment’. Webecame very good friends. I really liked him because he made me laugh so much I forgot my circumstances. I loved his deep, yet humorous, character.
It turned out that my spinal cord was severed between the T12 and L1 vertebrae, meaning I was basically paralysed from the hips down. Although the doctor apparently did tell me my paralysis was permanent, I can’t remember any of this, probably because I was so heavily sedated with pain meds. I think I was in such a state of denial that the reality didn’t sink in until after the month of rehab when I arrived back in Riebeeckstad with my mom, and tried to climb out of the car. The reality hit hard that I couldn’t physically do this.
For a while I felt abandoned by God. I think I put Him in the same category as my own father, who had left home. But when I began attending a ladies’ group with Esti, I started seeing another side of Him. I came to realise that actually the only thing I could really put my faith in was the person of Jesus Christ, and that one of my blind spots in life had been to keep putting my faith in a relationship with someone else and not God. I’d been afraid to be on my own and had always felt I needed to be with someone.
About two years after the accident, I resumed my studies, staying with Hanro’s family until my mom moved to Bloem and I could live with her. I think my physical injuries were toughest to accept for the people closest to me. None of them had ever had a disability, so it was difficult for them to deal with. There were incidents of weirdness because they, too, were hurting. I also went through phases when I was extremely angry and irritable. It was hard, and you take it out on those closest to you.
Four years later, Hanro and I began asking ourselves whether we should pursue our relationship because it was becoming more ernstig [serious]. We went into a period of separation from each other for four months, only seeing each other infrequently. We wanted to understand if God wanted us to get married or not: I knew it would be hard for a man to have a wife in a wheelchair, and I wanted the best for him. After four months of reading the Bible and praying and thinking about it, we felt our message was that God would bless us no matter what we decided. In June 2010 we got engaged and in February 2011 we got married. Our wedding was so beautiful. My brothers and Hanro’s brother carried me into the church on a little wooden bench like a princess. It was just perfect!
I obtained my LLB law degree in 2010 and was admitted as an attorney in the High Court during the same year. I now do fiduciary work, which includes estate planning and trust administration. I love people, so I love my work. Fortunately, my office in Claremont gives me easy access in a wheelchair. Once I’m in the car, I can fold my wheelchair using two quick release buttons to take the wheels off. It then weighs just 4,5kg and I can lift it and put it on the passenger seat. Reassembling it is just as easy.
Some years later, I sustained a bad burn on my foot and was admitted to hospital again. When Hanro was pushing me back out of hospital, it suddenly felt as if I’d gone back 10 years and I just crashed emotionally. It felt as if I’d never dealt with the accident. I had always told myself: ‘Just get on with life, it’s not that bad’, but I had a breakdown then. I spent three weeks with psychologists and psychiatrists, but at the end of this time I came out stronger.
For many years, despite strong medication, I had the most excruciating neuropathic pain originating from where my spine was severed: my brain kept trying to tell me there was something wrong! I would feel it in my legs as if I was being burnt by fire, shocked by electricity or getting stabbed in the legs. Sometimes I needed to work from home where I could sit in bed and stretch my legs out if the pain was too much to bear, which my boss very generously allowed me to do.
However, in July 2015, I did a trial of a nerve-stimulating device that was implanted at the source of the pain in my spine. There was a 50/50 chance it would work – and it did! I’m so grateful, because even though the pain isn’t totally gone, the intensity is so much better. It already feels as if I can cope so much better through my day-to-day activities and I’m now being weaned off the second of four pain-control medications. At the moment, I manage the strength of the stimulation by way of an external remote and Hanro jokes that he can finally control his wife by using it!
It’s a big dream of mine to have children. The medication for the pain is the only reason I can’t right now because it would harm the baby. It’s so important for Hanro and me to have a baby, even just one. As a woman there’s nothing wrong with me. I can even become pregnant the normal way, everything! I can carry the baby in my own womb and would just have to be monitored more closely because there are more risks for a paraplegic, but nothing that can’t be overcome.
I’m so happy that now that I am being weaned off some medications for pain, the possibility of starting a family is real! When I no longer have to take any tablets to deal with the pain, Hanro and I will start trying to have a baby, as soon as next year, I hope.
I think my biggest challenge in life is people’s reactions at the mall and other public places, where I’m just another person in a wheelchair to people who don’t know me. Some reactions are quite funny. Some people completely ignore me; others talk louder or stare at me. It was hard in the beginning because I perceived myself through their eyes and began asking, what’s wrong with me? It didn’t help at all with self-acceptance.
And then the disability parking − oh my word! People don’t think that a young lady, who can drive on her own and doesn’t have a wheelchair on a roof rack, can be a paraplegic. I fold my wheelchair and put it on the seat next to me because I don’t want to draw attention to it. So I get stares and people often come up to challenge me after I’ve parked, and I have to explain myself. That’s always hard. You learn to see the humour in that, though. You have to, or it gets to you.
In sickness and in health: Seugnet met her husband Hanro while recovering from the accident which paralysed her.
Music was always very important to me. My father’s mom was a music teacher who played the piano, my mother’s mom played the piano and organ, and they both sang in church choirs. I always sang and played the piano. I stopped after the accident, but then I felt a prompt to begin again. It was difficult in the beginning to generate power in my diaphragm while sitting down and I had to learn to do that. Now it’s not really difficult at all. I didn’t think it was possible, but I can! It’s a dream of mine to record my own music one day.
Today my faith is stronger than ever, and my hope as well. I’ll never lose the hope and expectancy for healing, never, because I know God could do it in an instant. I’m so content. It really doesn’t matter that I’m not walking presently, that my pain isn’t gone fully, that I want to give my husband hugs whilst standing or go for walks with him on the beach. No difficult thing in life matters, because God Himself promises that He will never leave us. He goes before us and will be with us. He blows my mind every single day with His ‘bigness’ and the plans He has for me, even in a wheelchair. I’ve just got to be willing to walk with Him, let Him guide my steps. I hold on to Jeremiah 29:11 which says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
My best piece of advice for curve balls in life? It’s to know that not one of us is exempt from them. We live in an imperfect world with imperfect people. But I have realised God gives us an anchor so our boat is safe in rough waters. Of course I still sometimes struggle and get it all wrong, but God is always there to pick me back up again and point me in the right direction. He calms the storms.’