‘I’m just happy to be alive’: Charles Oppelt on living with SCI for 20 years

im just happy to be alive charles oppelt on living with sci for 20 years

JOHANNESBURG – September is Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Awareness Month and at the beginning of the month Eyewitness News spoke to Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), Spinal Unit Manager the healthcare provider, Elma Burger, about the impact of an SCI and the kind of support patients need after such an injury.

READ: SCI awareness month: impact of a spinal cord injury extends beyond paralysis

“Physical rehabilitation, psychological support, community support from those living with SCIs, famSCIs support, support from their work environments etc, are among some of the support structures needed to ensure successful re-integration into the community after sustaining a spinal cord injury/illness,” said Burger.

To close off SCI Awareness Month Eyewitness News, caught up with SCI survivor, Charles Oppelt to talk about how he has experienced life after a spinal cord injury.

Oppelt was 17-years-old in 2002, playing rugby for Mamre Rugby Football Club when a scrum collapsed, causing a severe injury to his cervical spine and leaving him paralysed from the neck down.

“My disability is I’m a C6/C7 incomplete due to a rugby injury in 2002. I dislocated my spine, this year it’s been 20 years,” said Oppelt.

The severity of the injury is often called “the completeness” and is classified as either of the following: complete is if all feeling (sensory) and all ability to control movement (motor function) are lost below the spinal cord injury – your injury is called complete.

Incomplete is if you have some motor or sensory function below the affected area, your injury is called incomplete. There are varying degrees of incomplete injury.

According to Mayo Clinic, your ability to control your limbs after a spinal cord injury depends on two factors: where the injury occurred on your spinal cord and the severity of the injury.

“I’m currently writing a book about where I have been, the darkness I have overcome over the years, the battle with mental health, my battle with drugs, which I started taking because of everything that has happened to me. It had been an uphill battle for me to accept my disability but luckily, through the grace of God, I made it to the other side,” said Oppelt.

The former rugby player who was left paralysed due to a spinal injury waited 15 hours before he received treatment for the injury.

It was only 13 years later that the Constitutional Cour t ruled that the Western Cape Health Department was negligent in their treatment of Mamre rugby player Charles Oppelt.

ALSO READ: Rugby injury survivor compensated after 13 years

Spinal cord injury may affect motor, sensory and autonomic function often resulting in paralysis and loss of sensation and autonomic dysfunction (such as blood pressure instability and disruptions in temperature regulation) just to name a few.

Oppelt has taken part in various para-sports since his accident, such as wheelchair rugby and currently wheelchair bodybuilding.

“How I got into bodybuilding was through Marko Pietrowski. He does physio and training with me and in Cape Town where Rob Evens is the boss, Enhanced centre. We met say five or six years ago when he was a professional bodybuilder before he had his accident. He’s now in a wheelchair,” said Oppelt.

READ MORE: Former personal trainer Pietrowski struggles to get work due to disability

After a spinal cord injury, nerves above the level of injury keep working normally. At the level of injury, messages may be blocked from being transmitted from above that level to below the level of injury.

“I think a highlight of my career is the first time I got into a wheelchair rugby chair after my accident. Sports is in my blood and just the atmosphere of the other athletes was amazing. And this year sitting on the stage as my trophy and gold medal were handed to me after the bodybuilding national championships, that was a priceless moment,” Oppelt tells Eyewitness News.

The para-athlete said he’s been receiving a lot of help from the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund over the past 20 years, and he’s grateful for the fund as it has eased his life.

“Global incident rates of SCI estimate that the rates of traumatic SCI are between 3.6 and 194.4 persons per million, with SA’s latest estimates being 75 persons per million, peaking in males between 18 and 29 years of age. The majority of SCIs are due to assault (59.3%) followed by transportation (26.3%) and falls (11.7%),” said Netcare Spinal Unit Manager, Elma Burger.

According to Spinalcord.com a few of the other concerns that come with a spinal cord injury include chronic pain, spasms, impaired breathing, lack of temperature regulation in the body, infection risks, circulatory issues, blood pressure dangers, and dangerous weight loss or weight gain. Frequent hospitalisations, then, and ongoing medical care needs become part of everyday life for many individuals living with SCI.

“I’m just happy to be alive man. I’m also busy with my organisation ‘I am a fighter’ I want to use my organisation to teach people that they can be independent and contribute to society and live their lives to the full after a spinal cord injury,” Oppelt said.

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