The committed team at Rehab@Muelmed help people come to terms with disabilities following accidents or illness.

In honour of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, one patient shares his heightened respect and empathy for those who are wheelchair-bound.

Rehab@Muelmed is a 56-bed inpatient facility that offers acute functional rehabilitation to patients disabled after spinal cord injuries, traumatic head injuries, strokes and other conditions, such as total or partial limb amputation and post-surgical joint replacement rehabilitation. The facility supports patients in reaching maximum independence after these disabling events.

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When a rare illness suddenly attacked his nervous system, it took only a few days for 20-year-old Wihann Slabbert to change from being an active, healthy second-year agriculture student to living in a wheelchair. “Losing my independence was extremely difficult to deal with,” he says. “It was disempowering, frustrating and embarrassing. I was unable to wash, dress, or feed myself; I had to ask for help for the simplest tasks.”

As a result, Wihann says he now has the utmost respect and empathy for people who live with physical disabilities. “It really opened my eyes to how difficult it is for those with limited mobility,” he says. “I plan to work on our family farm in the future, and although I’ve heard of some people who still manage to farm in a wheelchair, I know they need special contraptions in order to get into a bakkie or a tractor. I’m very fortunate that although I’m still battling with my balance and I can’t run, my time in the wheelchair was temporary. I think people who have permanently lost the use of their limbs and who continue to lead productive, happy lives are extremely courageous.”

Following his unexpected and bewildering diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) – a rare autoimmune condition that affects the peripheral nerves – Wihann spent a month in hospital, followed by nine weeks as an inpatient at Rehab@Muelmed.

He recalls the strange turn of events. “I’d had stomach cramps for a week but planned to play my Sunday touch rugby game as normal. By early evening, when I started to play, I kept falling because I felt so unbalanced. I assumed I’d pinched a nerve or pulled a muscle, but my father told me to go to my GP the next day.”

Wihann’s doctor referred him to Mediclinic Muelmed for additional tests. “I walked into the hospital with a limp, but by the next day, I couldn’t even reach for my phone. It was extremely scary as I didn’t know what was going on while the doctors were still conducting tests.” It was a lumbar puncture that revealed his GBS diagnosis.

Despite setbacks, Wihann has a joyous, positive approach to his recovery. “The level of professionalism and assistance at Rehab@Muelmed is next level,” he says. “The therapists and nurse knew what my limits were and never pushed me unnecessarily. They became my friends. They’re all amazing people – they encouraged me, were very sensitive to my moods and kept me calm when things became overwhelming. The psychologist helped me through the really tough times and kept me focused on my recovery.”

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Rehab@Muelmed director and orthopaedic surgeon Dr Francois Theron explains that there are four major practices within the facility:

  • Doctors’ practice – four full-time doctors
  • Therapy practice – physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists
  • Psychology practice – clinical and counselling psychologists, and social workers
  • The 54-strong nursing component, managed by Unit Manager Verona van Rensburg.

Dr Theron says a number of factors set this world-class facility apart from other rehabilitation centres. “Our major focus is on lifelong care as patients with physical disabilities find it difficult to access certain services,” he explains. “For example, a woman in a wheelchair who needs to see a gynaecologist will not be able to access the stirrups. People who lack bladder and/or bowel control due to a brain, spinal cord or nerve problem also require specific urological care control; others require frequent kidney sonars and have specific needs in terms of catheters.”

Rehab@Muelmed is the largest centre in South Africa affiliated to an acute care hospital. Its teams are research-focused and currently involved in four major multicentre studies. “This means our patients are able to partake in rehab programmes much sooner – and MRIs, CT scans and bone density tests are available at Mediclinic Muelmed without interrupting a patient’s rehabilitation care,” Dr Theron says.

The facility also runs peer-support training courses where patients who have successfully reintegrated into society following stroke, traumatic brain injury, or amputation offer support to current patients. “My biggest purpose in life now is to motivate others and give them hope for the future,” says Wihann. “I continue to see a physio for my legs and an occupational therapist for fine motor skills, involving the arms, hands, and fingers. I hope to be able to play touch rugby again in the near future.”