Helmets saves lives

Seven-year old boy has a miraculous recovery after near-fatal motorcycle accident

Monday, November 25 2013

For his seventh birthday, Ethen van Rensburg wanted an Avengers party. He couldn’t wait to wear his bright blue and red superhero costume; so much so that he put it on every night before he went to bed. Overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of having all his friends at his house, Ethen was counting the sleeps until he could unwrap his presents.

But instead of playing superheroes with his friends on his birthday, Ethen was lying in hospital, unconscious and fighting for his life, as a result of a severe head injury. His status was critical and doctors were doubtful that he would live to see another birthday.

The day before, 24 April, had been a very happy one for Ethen. To celebrate his upcoming birthday he and his father, Raymond, had spent the whole day together, starting off with breakfast at Ethen’s favourite restaurant. They ended the day with an exhilarating ride on Raymond’s off-road two-wheeler in the koppies above their home in Rangeview.

Sadly, their joyful day of father and son bonding was to end tragically. At around 5 pm, as they rounded a corner on the 4x4 trail, with Ethen sitting in front of his dad and holding tightly onto the handle bars, Raymond was suddenly blinded by the sun and, unable to see anything in front of him, they collided head-on with another motorcycle.

Dazed, in pain and unable to walk, Raymond managed to phone his wife, Wilda, to tell her about the crash, but was unable to give exact details of their whereabouts. Stranded in the koppies, his unconscious son lying sprawled a few metres away from him, Raymond could do little else but pray for help to arrive as soon as possible as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

In the meantime, Wilda frantically called on friends to help as a cold autumn evening set in. Along with the local neighbourhood watch, the Community Protection Force (CPF), and a group of volunteers, she set about finding her husband and son. Everyone took a different route, some on foot and others in four-wheel drive vehicles, combing the koppies for the Van Rensburgs.

It took five hours for the volunteers to find Ethen and his father.

Once the two had been located, a friend immediately called Netcare 911 for assistance. Two intermediate support paramedics arrived within minutes, and immediately called for the Netcare Kwagga, an off-road vehicle which is ideally suited for rocky, uneven terrain and can get to places that ambulances cannot reach, to be dispatched to the scene. Ethen was battling to breathe, so the paramedics had to ventilate him right there in the veld. They managed to stabilise the hypothermic Ethen and Raymond, along with the 21-year-old man with whom they had collided. All three patients were then transported to the Netcare 911 ambulance waiting at the nearest road, which took them to Netcare Garden City Hospital.

Ethen was admitted to the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU), under the care of paediatric intensivist, Dr Miles Bartlett and a team of highly trained medical and nursing professionals. His dad and the 21-year-old were admitted to the adult ICU. The next day on his birthday, Ethan underwent a three-hour long operation to repair his femur, fibula and tibia and had an external fixator fixed to his leg. However, the real concern was the possibility of brain damage. On Ethen’s third day in hospital, Dr Bartlett and his team put Ethen on an ICP monitor to measure his intracranial pressure. Whenever the pressure in his brain increased, the medical team would lower Ethen’s temperature, effectively protecting his brain from excess activity.

For the first week, the medical interventions resulted in Ethen’s condition improving, but suddenly he deteriorated on the eighth day. The doctors and nursing staff did all that was humanly possible but eventually, after resuscitating Ethen for four hours, the family was told to say goodbye to the little boy. Heartbroken, his relatives did the only thing they could do; they prayed while the doctors and nurses continued their fight to save Ethen.

Inexplicably, Ethen’s vitals started showing improvement and soon the relieved medical staff were able to put him on an oscillator, which pumped air into his lungs while vibrating them so that the oxygen could reach his extremities. He stayed on the oscillator for a week whereafter he was deemed well enough to go back onto a normal ventilator.

After four weeks of sedation and being ventilated, Ethen was carefully brought back to consciousness by the doctors and his breathing tubes were removed. When he first regained consciousness, Ethen was naturally confused and did not recognise any of his family members. He was, however, able to talk and understand those around him, which was way beyond what doctors had originally predicted. Only too happy to have her son fully awake and chattering away, his mother, Wilda, did not mind too much that her son, instead of calling her “mamma” as he used to, referred to her as the “funny tannie” because he couldn’t understand why this ‘stranger’ knew what kind of games he liked and what his favourite foods were.

After a few weeks Ethen was transferred to Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Auckland Park, starting a tough six-hour-a-day routine of speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy. Because of the injury to his femur, he also had to learn to walk again during the six-week period that he spent in rehabilitation.

These days Ethen is back at home, but still goes for rehabilitation three times a week. In September, after nearly five months, Ethen even went back to school, although he will have to repeat Grade 1 again next year. The brand new mountain bike his parents bought him for his birthday still sits in the garage, unused. Due the injury to his femur, he will only be able to ride a bicycle once his leg has healed fully. As a result of his head injury, Ethen may not take part in any contact sports, or even rough and tumble with his friends, for the next three years.

Ethen’s dad, Raymond, is also grateful to be alive. When the two off-road motorcycles collided, the other bike rode over Raymond’s neck, damaging some nerves. He lost the use of his right arm as a result, but when he thinks about what could have happened he knows he escaped lightly.

Many would say that Ethen and Raymond van Rensburg’s recovery is a miracle. While that is true it is also a fact that if Ethen and his dad had not been wearing their helmets on that fateful day, their story would have had a very different ending. The expert medical care they received from Netcare 911, Netcare Garden City Hospital and Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital also went a long way to ensuring a happy ending for this young family.

“With many families planning recreational activities for the holiday season, now is a good time for the general public to be reminded about the importance of wearing helmets, whether on a motorcycle or a bicycle. Ethen and Raymond’s story is an excellent illustration of how a helmet, correctly worn, can literally save a life,” says Tumi Nkosi, director: business development and corporate affairs of Netcare.

“I strongly urge the public to download the Netcare Assist App, which is a vital lifeline in times of emergency. The free app can immediately connect you to the Netcare 911 emergency operations centre for assistance,” explains Nkosi.

The Netcare Assist App contains valuable medical information such as how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and what to do in the case of burns, near-drowning, fractures, strokes and heart attacks. “Having the information on your cellphone essentially means you have a very basic first aid course on hand in your bag or in your pocket,” Nkosi concludes.


Issued by : Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare
Contact : Martina Nicholson, Sarah Beswick or Graeme Swinney
Telephone : (011) 469 3016
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