Roll with it
Posted on 7 September 2014
"I don’t need to prove anything to myself, but it’s nice to prove it to other people."-
In the five years since a motorbike accident confined him to a wheelchair, Mathys Roets has rewritten the book on what a paraplegic can and can’t do. His next move? Changing other people’s perceptions.
Words Will Sinclair Photographs Melanie Maré
Mathys Roets is a South African musician whose work includes original compositions along with interpretations of classics by folk icons like Leonard Cohen, Cat Stevens and Roger Whittaker. He plays golf, competes in road races and enjoys a braai with his mates. He’s a completely normal guy.
Except he’s not. Mathys is a paraplegic.
He has been in a wheelchair since 2009 when he had a life-altering motorbike crash on the road to the KKNK arts festival, and in those five years he’s learnt a few things about himself… and about people in general.
Mostly, he’s learnt to challenge and rethink the idea of what is – and isn’t – possible. ‘I went down the Swartberg Pass in my wheelchair just because I wanted to,’ he says. ‘And the freedom I experienced was simply amazing, even though my hands were burning from the friction of braking on the wheels.’
For Mathys, the best part of his high-speed wheelchair ride down the mountain was the reaction from other drivers on the pass. ‘I enjoyed coming around a blind corner at speed and some guy comes around from the other direction, and you see his face and he’s thinking, “Hang on, was that a guy in a wheelchair charging down the pass?”’
‘It’s not dangerous,’ he says. ‘It’s possible, with the right gear, the right control and the right environment. And that experience has changed my perception. Hopefully it can change other people’s perceptions as well.’
That’s been one of Mathys’s biggest challenges since he woke up in hospital five years ago: the limitations that able-bodied people place on those in wheelchairs.
‘Speaking as an active paraplegic, people tend to believe we’re more disabled than we actually are,’ he says. ‘They expect us to be a little bit mentally handicapped as well. They always, always want to push your chair and they just can’t let go of the handles at the back. As a paraplegic, it’s difficult to explain to other people that we only need a certain amount of help. It’s only out of kindness that they want to help, so you can’t be annoyed by that, but it’s frustrating.’ It’s also dangerous: wheelchairs have a tricky balance to them, so when somebody else grabs hold of Mathys’s chair, even with the best of intentions, they impede his movement and interfere with that balance.
As an able-bodied person, though, one can’t help but be surprised at how well he’s adapted to life in a wheelchair. ‘I can do whatever I like,’ he says, ‘and I can even do it faster than most people! My normal pace in a wheelchair is a light trot for anyone who’s trying to walk with me, so sometimes I’ll push ahead and force them to try to catch up. It’s just a joke… But if you can’t have a sense of humour about it, then you’ll never survive life in a wheelchair.’
Mathys recently took up golf again. ‘I’ve hit a couple of balls, adjusted my swing and tried to see where I can go with it,’ he says. ‘The main thing for me is just the idea that I can spend time with my friends on a golf course. The last couple of games where I joined them, all I could do was drive the drinks cart.’ He plays using a wheelchair that has a special mechanism that puts him into a standing position. ‘It’s a normal wheelchair – just slightly heavier – with a standing action that lets me look people in the eye,’ he says.
For Mathys, that ability to pull himself up to his natural height has made a huge psychological difference. The standing chair has its limitations (balance and mobility can be difficult, and Mathys needs to use both arms to get up and down), but it allows him to be part of the conversation again.
‘I was used to being a tall guy,’ he says, ‘but when you’re sitting down, you’re kind of just sitting back. Standing up, I can be more in control of a situation. Now I can roll up to a bar and order my drink while making eye contact with the barman.’
Mathys uses the same standing wheelchair when he’s performing on stage – and not just for the psychological lift it gives him. ‘With the standing chair I’m more stable than sitting down. It’s just a matter of balance. In a sitting chair, if I reach to either side I have to hang onto the wheel with my other arm otherwise I’ll fall out of the chair. Standing, my hips are in a different position, my feet are on solid ground and I can reach in both directions with either arm.’
Also, when he’s in the seated chair, he has to deal with a rock-star problem. ‘During my shows, ladies sometimes want to come up and give me a hug and I’m really stuck! The chair isn’t very stable, so you can fall over very easily if someone’s a bit overzealous.’
Off stage, Mathys is a keen road racer, recently clocking a 10km race in 50 minutes – a decent time even for an able-bodied runner. ‘Three years ago I met a guy in a wheelchair during a 10km race in Pretoria,’ he says, ‘and as I went past him I took his phone number.
I phoned him the next day and said, “We met during the race, let’s start something where we can exercise together in our wheelchairs once a week.”’ Mathys and his new friend, Pieter Pretorius, started doing weekly runs in Moreleta Kloof, an enclosed nature reserve in Pretoria – and their group has now grown to 35.
‘The idea was to do a weekly training run, but now it’s mostly a weekly “tea-drinking” session,’ he laughs. ‘There are some guys who have done absolutely awesome stuff. One is a C5 quadriplegic, who’s been in a wheelchair for 35 years and is one of the very few who can drive independently and do everything himself. There are also paraplegic guys who have their national colours in athletics and wheelchair basketball. It’s not a group feeling sorry for themselves – it’s a group that’s taking life by the scruff of the neck.’
Last year Pieter ran/rolled 1 200km in road races (‘Not in training,’ says Mathys, ‘that’s what he logged up in races!’), and this year he’s aiming for 1 600km in the calendar year. ‘That means he has to do a race of more than 20km every weekend, otherwise he misses the target,’ says Mathys.
‘It’s amazing to be friends with a guy like that. And that’s why Pieter and I started the website, rollingin.za.org – to show people what’s possible. If somebody wakes up tomorrow morning in a hospital, stuck in a wheelchair from now on, that person has no point of reference. You only know what you’ve seen of people in wheelchairs: people being pushed around, people shaking a tin at a shopping centre. The Paralympics has changed that perception a little bit, but even then it’s athletes in super-fast sports wheelchairs. People don’t know that in a normal wheelchair you can live an active, effective life. You don’t need to be a superhuman. You can just be a normal person.’
It’s been five years since his accident, and while everything about his life has changed, at the sametime nothing has changed. ‘After the accident I immediately knew I’d be able to carry on,’ he says. ‘In some ways I can’t even distinguish between before the accident and after the accident. I can’t climb a mountain, but sometimes I’ll find a nice trail that leads all the way to the top and I’ll follow that, just to go and look out from the top again.’
Mathys smiles, then adds: ‘I don’t need to prove anything to myself, but it’s nice to prove it to other people.’
How spinal injuries work
The spinal cord runs through the centre of the vertebrae and damage to the vertebrae may cause damage to the spinal cord. Each of the vertebra has its own name and number. Working from the top, you have seven cervical (neck) segments, labelled C1 to C7; then 12 thoracic segments in the middle, labelled T1 to T12; and five lumbar and two sacral segments at the bottom, labelled L1 to L5 and S1 and S2. Each segment is linked to a specific motor function (or movement) in your body, and spinal-cord injuries are classified according to the segment that’s affected. Because the different parts of the spine govern different parts of the body, a spinal injury could either render you paraplegic (with limited or no use of your legs) or tetraplegic/quadriplegic (with limited or no use of arms and legs).
Mathys Roets suffered injuries to the T12 vertebra at the bottom of his thoracic spine, which impaired the use of his hip flexors and legs. A C5 injury, meanwhile, would result in potential loss of function at the patient’s biceps and shoulders, and complete loss of function at their wrists and hands. T-category damage affects your lower body and abdominal area, while L-category damage mostly affects your legs and hips. It’s not just your limb movement that’s affected in a spinal injury: some C-category injuries impair your ability to breathe, while some L-injuries impair your sexual or urinary function.
The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.