‘After I hit the ground it seemed that I was still falling because I had the sensation of my legs still being in the air. And I couldn’t feel them at all,’ says athlete Xander Van Der Poll who broke his back after climbing a tree | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
At 19, XANDER VAN DER POLL (22) appeared to have the world at his feet: a first year rugby-playing medical student who enjoyed much of what life has to offer. Then he fell out of a tree and broke his back. So why is he still excited about life? XANDER and his mother KAREN spoke to KATY MACDONALD about weathering a storm that no app ever predicted
Leadership and life coach Karen (52) grew up in Durban, South Africa, and studied at Stellenbosch University, where she met her husband Etienne, a business consultant. They moved to the UK 19 years ago and have two adult children, Lise and Xander
‘In the summer of 2018, I had an empty nest for the first time in my life and was contemplating options after leaving a corporate job. My daughter had just started her first job in London as a vet and Xander was in his first year of medicine at Bristol University.
Xander phoned to ask if he could come home for a few days before his exams. He was tired of two-minute noodles and needed some home cooking.
Xander with mom Karen, who says: ‘He’s always challenged the norm and been competitive and hard-working, with a fun and cheeky edge that’s been hard to parent at times: exactly the traits he needs for such a time as this!’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
I made toasted sandwiches for him and his friend and they went to walk the dog in the park at the back of our house. A couple of minutes later, his friend called. She was hysterical. I got there in the blink of an eye to find Xander lying on the ground. He, too, was hysterical. ‘I can’t feel my legs,’ he said. Someone had already called an ambulance so I focused on calming him down. I lay down next to him and cried out to God in a rather shocked and ineloquent way.
At the hospital, there was a sea of faces and everything was a haze. My husband Etienne had got on the first flight home from Dublin, where he was working. A neurosurgeon sent Xander for an MRI, CT scans, x-rays, the whole cahoot. It turned out he’d shattered his T12 vertebra, which had lodged in his spine. The doctor talked to me about the injury, then said in a matter-of-fact way, ‘And your son will never walk again.’
Accident scene: Xander lies face down after falling out of a tree in his local park. ‘I told my friend not to call Mom because I thought she’d be angry, but she called her anyway. By then I was in proper pain.’
Scans showed that Xander had broken his back. As a result, he was to remain flat on his back in the hospital bed for six weeks. ‘I originally started an Instagram blog [@six_weeks_in_bed] to give people updates, but within a week I had a thousand followers: people I didn’t even know. I realised how many people cared,’ he says
I stood there and couldn’t breathe: I had to consciously tell my body to inhale and exhale. Everything had gone hazy, I didn’t understand what people told me, nothing computed, made sense or stayed in my head.
Xander was wheeled in for an operation to remove fragments of his vertebrae from his spinal cord and fix his vertebrae in place with two metal rods. It lasted till 3am, and felt more like six days than six hours.
And then the journey started. Six weeks in hospital flat on his back, then three months at The Midland Centre for Spinal Injuries in Oswestry, near Wales. Xander could use his upper body without a problem, but had no sensation or functional movement below his waist. He was keen to regain control of his life and decided still to take his exams when we discovered the university could send an invigilator to hospital. Lying flat on his back made it hard for him to read his laptop, but we bought some periscope-type glasses on Amazon for him to wear, and constructed a system across the bed that held his laptop so he could see the screen while lying flat.
Karen bought Xander these glasses online to enable him to view his laptop while lying totally flat. He wrote his Bristol University first year medical exams in this position, and was awarded a distinction. He says: ‘I took the exams because as I lay there with no control over anything, I suddenly thought, The one thing I can take control of is my brain’
Just before the exam, a healthcare worker accidentally knocked the laptop and it shattered all over the floor and lost his notes. He also kept falling asleep thanks to his medication. But somehow he got through the exams – and got a distinction!
This video marks the end of Xander’s six weeks in bed. ‘When I was told that I would start to sit up, I had grand delusions of being picked up and plunked straight into a wheelchair and sent off into the real world,’ he says. ‘As you can see from my facial expression, when I got to around 20 degrees I realised why I wasn’t just put straight into a chair. I suddenly felt very faint and had to ask the nurse to stop. She was happy to leave me at 20 degrees, but I told her that I wanted to push myself and go all the way to 30. Eventually we got there and I was able to eat my first lunch unaided and drink my first drink without a straw’
Ironically, most of Bristol University is very accessible but not all of the medical faculty is. When Xander expressed the desire to carry on with his studies, we discussed how this might take place. Together we decided it would be wise for him to take the year out to gain strength and adapt to his new circumstances, and for the medical school to have time to accommodate his wheelchair by September 2019. Fantastically, an oncologist named Tom Wells saw Xander’s story on the news and offered to mentor him through studying medicine as a disabled person. Tom had a skiing accident during his third year of studies that left him paralysed. We were so appreciative of Tom, and when he came to visit he brought his daughter with him. This was a sense of relief for Xander, as one of his worries was whether he could have children.
Given Xander’s time off, we decided to return to South Africa for a few months for intensive rehabilitation at The Walking with Brandon Foundation under the care of Rob Evans, a biokineticist currently busy with his PhD in spinal rehabilitation.
Enjoy this wow of a rope climb by Xander during his rehabilitation at Cape Town’s Sports Science Institute. ‘I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve this before my accident whilst my legs still worked!’ he says
While we were in South Africa, Xander competed at the SASAPD Toyota National Championships for the physically disabled and visually impaired and won gold in the 200m, and silver in the 1 500m and 400m races!
Xander at the SA Sports Association for the Physically Disabled (SASAPD) Toyota National Championships at the Coetzenburg Athletics Stadium in Stellenbosch. ‘It wasn’t his winning performances that I was the most proud of, it was rather seeing how he interacted with and encouraged other people,’ says Karen | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
I was so incredibly proud of Xander. He’s always challenged the norm and been competitive and hard working, but with a fun and cheeky edge that’s been hard to parent at times: exactly the traits he needs for such a time as this!
Showing he could excel in the face of adversity was testament to that, but his performance was not the main reason I felt proud. Rather, seeing how he interacted with people, encouraging and taking them along with him on this journey, showing so much grace to those around him… this is what brought tears to my eyes. And keeping that sense of humour! He decided early on to see his injury as an opportunity to change lives, and I am starting to witness this at first hand.
Depression is the biggest challenge
I sat in hospital with Xander for nearly four months and realised from journeying with the patients there that depression is the biggest challenge for anyone who’s had a major injury. People get to a point where they can’t see reason. I believe one of our biggest struggles today is the silent, evil mental health issue that looms over us and our children, who are often not equipped to find hope in their lives. Xander has decided to do what he can to help others find hope in desperate situations. He set up an Instagram blog [six_weeks_in_bed] and gets contacted by people from all over the world. Some of the messages he receives are heart-wrenching.
Xander has started sharing his determination to live life to the full with school children. Here, he is speaking at Ellisras High School in South Africa, and below he is pictured with the school’s teachers
He has also started speaking regularly at schools, sharing his determination to live life to the full. His first speaking engagement was by invitation from a school in Lephalahle, South Africa, and it was amazing to see how he touched the kids. They were in tears then laughing too because he’s a bit of a wise-ass!
When we returned to the UK, Xander did very well in his racing and was ranked ninth in the UK. Since then, he’s taken up para-rowing and was the first disabled rower to join Bristol University’s Rowing Club, whose members very kindly raised money to adapt a boat for him. In the last year, he was selected for the Paralympic pathway programme and has his eye on the Paralympics. It’s a challenge to combine training with his medical degree but he’s giving it everything. If you don’t try, your chances of failing are 100%!
As far as my personal experience of this storm goes, I want to tell people never to underestimate the value of doing something, no matter how small or insignificant you might think it is, when there is drama in the life of someone you know. We often think we can’t do anything because the situation seems so huge and we withdraw. But when our community wrapped us in its arms, it literally kept us going.
We found a meal by the door
Some people regularly drove a 100km round trip to visit us in hospital, to offer food other than hospital food, board games and just general chatter to help the time pass. A friend who had had a braai [barbeque] at home even brought some of the meat to share with Xander: it was the most beautiful English summer and hard to be stuck inside and in a bed.
At home, things were just taken care of. When we got home from hospital the first time, we found a meal by the door. Friends looked after our animals, brought them food, took them to the vet if necessary. The garden was tended and a team of men even redid our whole driveway for Xander to be able to come home for a day visit and have access to our house!
Xander was invited by coach Job King to train with world record holder Karé Adenegan (pictured here) at the US National Paralympics base in Illinois. Calorific waffles are all part of the training, it seems. ‘I’m in awe of the power of sport and exercise, which I think is directly related to your mental health,’ says his mother Karen. ‘It’s amazing how quickly you can refocus when you focus on something else’
I realised that often we think we can’t help, but if you’re on the receiving end of good stuff it’s so amazing. It doesn’t have to be an enormous thing. I was equally as appreciative of the neighbour offering to iron Etienne’s shirts as I was of Xander’s friends raising £4 500 [over R100 000] to buy a wheelchair that was light and easy to use.
These are all daily miracles if we choose to see them as such. When all else seems to fail on this earth, it’s so often the power of community and connection that has kept our arms up high. I’m extremely grateful for every single person who’s come alongside us, be it with practical help, advice for help, prayer, or an encouraging word from a stranger I might never see again in my life. And also to those who were prepared just to sit with us or cry with us, showing us that we’re not alone.
Karen: ‘I’m extremely grateful for every single person who’s come alongside us, be it with practical help, advice for help, prayer, or an encouraging word from a stranger I might never see again in my life. And also to those who were prepared just to sit with us or cry with us, showing us that we’re not alone.’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
I’m in awe of the power of sport and exercise, which I think is directly related to your mental health, especially when overcoming such a life-changing situation. It’s amazing how quickly you can refocus when you focus on something else.
When I called on God and prayed with Xander as he lay under that tree after falling, I knew that something huge had happened. But a peace that passes all understanding entered my heart at that moment and it has never left me since, despite the storm that has erupted all around us. Although our emotions are all over the show at times, this peace remains.
Karen with Xander and Etienne. ‘I’m a doer and for the first time in my life, all ability to change the situation has been taken out of my hands, Although our emotions are all over the show at times, this peace remains,’ she says | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
I’m quite a doer and there is a lot to do practically for Xander, but for the first time in my life, all ability to change the situation has been taken out of my hands. No knowledge, no money, no manoeuvring can fix this situation at the moment. There’s no plan to be made even if I were to contact the cleverest neurosurgeon in the world. I’ve had a relationship with God for most of my life, but perhaps for the first time in my life I’ve surrendered trust to Him completely and utterly. If days become hard I say, ‘Lord, I trust you,’ and peace prevails. I don’t know what this journey’s going to look like but I utterly trust God. I do not seek to understand but merely trust. I do not fear for the future.
I don’t know anything for now about what my future holds, except being Xander’s carer for this period of time. I’m trusting God and He has not failed us once. I think He makes a way that can help you if you are open-minded about the future and can approach it with faith. He is the voice that calms my storm.’
Xander is now in his third year of medical studies at Bristol University
Medical student Xander van der Poll: ‘I thought I could carry on as normal when I got home from hospital, but then I realised it was going to be different. I got quite depressed… I didn’t want this to be my life’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
‘So my friend and I were walking the dog in the park and came across a tree I’ve been climbing since I was seven. We climbed up it and got to the point where I always stopped. I was on my way back down when my foot slipped and I fell three metres directly onto my back. After I hit the ground it seemed that I was still falling because I had the sensation of my legs still being in the air. And I couldn’t feel them at all.
I told my friend not to call Mom because I thought she’d be angry, but she called her anyway. By then I was in proper pain, lying on my stomach with my head on her lap. The first two ambulances couldn’t get on the field, but a third team managed it. They gave me morphine, got me to hospital and had to flip me onto my back which wasn’t great. My lung had collapsed and they had to cut my chest to put a chest drain in (the guy said I was too muscly to get the drain in… I wasn’t too unhappy with that!)
Staring at the ceiling
A scan showed I’d broken my back and I remember looking at the scans and thinking, those aren’t good. After surgery I asked the nurse how long I’d be there and he said I’d have to be flat on my back for six weeks, not get out of bed once, and would be turned every two hours, night and day, to prevent pressure sores. Then I realised it was serious.
The first four days were absolute agony, I was sweating and in so much pain. I was on paracetamol and morphine initially, but later tried to cut the drugs because I really don’t want to become dependent. The pain made me hallucinate, and one night I thought I saw the nurse coming for me with a cleaver, which was terrifying. Mentally, it was very tough. It was great when friends visited but hard when they were able to walk out, and I was left staring at the ceiling.
I was in hospital for three and a half months before I went home. I took my exams because as I lay there with no control over anything, I suddenly thought, ‘The one thing I can take control of is my brain’.
Above, Xander with father Etienne at the racing track and below with his Uncle Brian: ‘My university rugby club posted that I’d had “a life-changing injury”, he says. ‘But I said to Mom, This isn’t going to be a life-changing injury. I’m going to make this an injury that changes lives’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
When I got home I thought I could carry on just as before, but now I realised it was going to be different. Having to miss out on uni for a year was tough. I was at home in a heavy wheelchair and couldn’t do much by myself. I didn’t leave the house much, it felt hard to let people see me. I kept asking my friends what they saw first, me or the wheelchair, and I wondered how women would see me. I got quite depressed. I’d been a fit guy and it was tough to lose half my body. I didn’t want this to be my life, I wanted to be a normal 19-year-old who doesn’t care about life.
You can own a situation
But then I saw it was a tough year for lots of people. Mom’s friend got cancer and I realised that you can’t change a situation but you can own it. A girl in my church happens to be the 100m wheelchair world record holder. I contacted her and said, ‘I want to give it a go.’ She invited me to the track, and so just one week after my discharge from hospital, there I was in a racing chair! I went so slowly and everyone was beating me but it felt great to be doing something.
I went again to the track soon afterwards and started to realise that this was something I could do quite well in, and it was quite cool. I realised this was not just a place for disabled people to do something, it was for people who want to succeed in life, and who have helpful experience to share.
Xander with the nurses from the University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire who looked after him during his long hospital stay. He took them a cake he had baked himself to mark the first anniversary of his accident. ‘I can sit and feel sorry for myself or I can move forward,’ he says. ‘I have a new life now. It’s different, it’s scary, it’s fun, it’s weird’
I’ve learnt a lot about myself and people. A group of friends organised a 250km sponsored walk from the University in Bristol to the hospital in Wales to raise funds for a light active wheelchair for me, which is so fantastic to have. My relationship with my girlfriend at the time hasn’t lasted, which hit me badly for a while, but I soon realised you can’t blame everything on the wheelchair. It’s just life, and life goes on and good things happen and bad things happen.
I’ve met a lot of good people and I’m excited about what I’m going to do with my life. I haven’t changed, if anything I’ve become more secure in who I am. In Cape Town I went paragliding over the city and it felt so liberating! I got many messages from people saying, ‘How can you do this dangerous thing?’ But I guess I’m just an optimist who doesn’t feel his life is over.
It’s scary, it’s fun, it’s weird
I have worried about relationships, about having kids, about being independent again and becoming a doctor. But life goes on. I can sit still and feel sorry for myself (and probably no-one will stop me doing that), or I can move forward. I met Margaux, a stunning girl, while I was rehabilitating in South Africa and she has now moved over to the UK to explore life here. We both learn a lot from each other. The old part of my life has died and I have a new life ahead of me now. It’s different, it’s scary, it’s fun, it’s weird, and I’d love to get better and be able to walk but I’ve learnt a lot about people and life and what my priorities are.
Brothers in arms. Above and below: Xander with Brandon Beack, co-founder of Walking with Brandon, a South African based non-profit organisation that specialises in neurological rehabilitation. He and Xander have become close friends, and train together whenever possible | Photos: Leentjie du Preez
Stuff I used to stress about doesn’t even cross my mind now. I feel a person who doesn’t stress about the little things in life or make their own problems is a person who’s going to get far. Negativity shouldn’t have a place in a person’s life. So I’ve decided to get out there, make the most of my life and avoid sitting at home depressed because it’s not fun at all.
I started the Instagram blog originally to give people updates, but within a week I had 1 000 followers: people I didn’t even know, and I realised how many people cared. People now say I’m helping them with their own problems and it’s pretty cool. I’ve got over 4 000 followers now. And I’m doing those talks to show people that there’s life after…. whatever.
I’m now training with the para-rowing squad of British Rowing. I always get excited by the fact that when I go to sleep there’s going to be a new day.
My university rugby club, for which I was playing at the time that I sustained my injury, posted that I had had ‘a life-changing injury’. But I said to Mom, ‘This isn’t going to be a life-changing injury. I’m going to make this an injury that changes lives.’