Personal background

Below is information pertaining to
(i) Blind Insight
(ii) Don's childhood
(iii) His accident
(iv) His rehabilitation, and
(v) Some of his post-accident accomplishments.

1. Blind Insight

This talk is well suited for any personal improvement course, life coaching event or social function. In the talk Don gives a candid view into the thoughts, feelings and emotional needs of a disabled person, finally only to mirror the thoughts, feelings and emotional needs of many an able bodied person. This is a "feel good" talk, inspiring the audience to value and understand their own being, as well as to be more enlightened on how it is to be disabled.

2. Childhood

Don Wessels, the second eldest of three brothers and with parents both teachers by profession, grew up in Somerset West, a colonial town near the southern tip of Africa. With a seafront holiday house in the then unelectrified and sparsely populated coastal resort of Betty's Bay, and with several members of his extended family being farmers in the Cape Province, Don and his two brothers grew to be very familiar with and at home in the great African outdoors.

One of the earliest childhood memories Don can recall, this must have been at an age of not much more than two, is that of having been frightened by a herd of stampeding horses on a farm. Another very early memory he recalls is that of him stowing himself away on his father's boat while the latter was preparing to go out to sea, only to be found and ignominiously returned to the care of his mum.

With a dad who grew up with the Riviersonderend River and mountains as his backyard, Don's father was not only a nature lover, but also a keen fresh and salt water fisherman, skin-diver and spear fisherman - a love he most obviously allowed to blossom in his three buxom boys. As primary school lads in the late 1970's Don and his brothers, equipped with their own tents, were given free rein to explore the bushes, sandy gullies and sand dunes of their beloved Betty's Bay. Apart from these camping safaris, Don and his brothers honed their love and talent for fishing in the tidal pools close to where their dad was skin-diving for perlemoen (abalone) and alikreukel (an African sea snail). These camping and fishing mini expeditions all allowed the brothers' natural spirit of adventure and independence to grow, blossom and bloom!

At the age of 13, Don bought his first Zero skin-diving wetsuit from savings he earned by selling catches of fish he caught himself. Skin-diving from then on for his own quota of perlemoen in the turbulent Cape waters and also continuing to fish for both bottom fish and Geelbek (Cape Salmon) side by side with his dad on their boat till long after dark, often whilst being wet, cold and exhausted, toughened Don both physically and mentally. These attributes were to stand him in good stead in future leadership positions, on sporting fields, as well as during his life-altering crisis which was soon to loom on the horizon!

Don spent his high school years in the tough milieu of a boarding house of a large boys only school, Drostdy Technical High, in the rural Boland town of Worcester. Notwithstanding these somewhat harsh circumstances, Don excelled in a variety of fields. Not only did he always play in his age group's first rugby and cricket teams (sometimes as captain), but he was also elected as head boy of his hostel, deputy head boy of the school and chairman of the debate and Christian youth organisations, secretary of the Land Service association, and a schoolboy deacon in church.

3. The Accident

Don finished school (Grade 12) in 1986. The year thereafter he was conscripted to do his two-year National Service in the Defence Force. This was compulsory in apartheid South Africa for all white males finishing their schooling or tertiary education.

Thus in 1987, he was sent to an anti-aircraft regiment based at Youngsfield, Cape Town. Here he did his basic army training and was subsequently chosen for the prestigious officer's course, an honour only an elect few 18 year-olds were endowed with. Later that year, by then a second Lieutenant, he was sent to Namibia (which was then under South African administration) and from there to a conflict zone in the civil and Cold War ravaged Angola.

On 7 February 1988, a date now engraved in his memory, Don and a few of his non-commission officers and troops, investigated a wreck of an Angolan government reconnaissance plane which lay deep within the Angolan bush. A fact unknown to them was that the wreck was booby-trapped with a surrounding field of anti-personnel mines - one of these protruding above the sandy Angolan soil. A bombardier (corporal) picked up this small, disc-shaped device, mistaking it for the fuel cap of the aircraft. He tossed it to Don, requesting him to have a look at it. Don, deluded by the supposition that it was a petrol cap and not recognising the mine for what it was, tampered with it and the mine exploded in his hands throwing him onto his back.

Amazingly, although bleeding profusely, Don fought to keep consciousness throughout the three hours it took for a field-ambulance to reach him. When the doctor jumped from the ambulance, he stepped directly onto another mine and the front part of his foot was blown off and Don's rescue was even further delayed! A barely conscious Don was eventually stabilised and evacuated to a military hospital in northern Namibia. This was after the Engineer Core, metal detectors in hand, cleared a path through the minefield towards him.

Once in the specialist surrounding of South Africa's 1 Military hospital, surgeons deemed it unavoidable that both of Don's blue eyes will have to be removed and that his hands will have to be amputated at the wrists. With additional multiple lacerations and gaping wounds mainly to his face and chest, Don was quite a challenge for the plastic surgeons who had to rebuild parts of his face. After enduring an excruciating nine months in 1 Military Hospital, follow-up facial plastic surgery continued until four years after the accident.

4. Rehabilitation

The army psychologists expected Don to experience a major psychological breakdown as soon as the enormity of his accident took effect. This never happened to the extend they predicted. Considering his circumstances, Don had a remarkable rehabilitation. He progressed through the five psychological phases of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, that is denial, bargaining, aggression, depression and finally acceptance, with surprising ease.

The most important contributing factors to Don's successful rehabilitation, he attributes to the unfailing support systems he had at the time. First of all Don had his faith in God to support and carry him during these extremely testing times. Don believes that, even though his disabilities were not miraculously healed, God supernaturally helped him to come to terms with his injuries. His faith further more gave him holistic insight in the temporary nature of life on earth. "Life is not only about living for yourself and living for the here and the now, but also living for others and for the hereafter."

Don was also fortunate enough to have a support system in the people around him. Firstly in his parents, then in his brothers, family and friends. From a life-long experience he inherently knew that his parents loved him in such a way that they would care for him, no matter what. "With them I knew I had a safe harbour, a loving home to go back to."

Don is of the opinion that his continued strive to live a positive and normal a life as possible and true gratitude for what he still had, complemented the value of his above mentioned support systems and was another secret to his successful rehabilitation. Throughout his life, he always had a positive and friendly outlook on life and the world around him. As a result his nickname at high school was "Laggies" (meaning laughter).

When the crisis of his accident and resulting disability came upon him, it was thus still natural for him to continue focusing on the positive side of things and to be thankful for what he still had! Right from the start of his post-accident life he has always thought that, "it could have been worse. I could have died, had brain damage or been paralysed, or could very easily suffered loss of hearing, which would have indeed been extremely crippling in conjunction with my blindness". To him, all of these scenarios would have been worse than what actually happened.

Rather than dwelling on the negative, Don focused on what he could still do. Some of the first goals he thus set himself were to obtain a BA Degree at the University of Stellenbosch, to still enjoy the outdoors and to make new friends for he lost most of the friends he had before his accident.

5. Post-accident accomplishments

Since his accident, Don has not only obtained a BA Degree at the University of Stellenbosch, but also a Honours and Masters post graduate degrees in international politics with Unisa. He was also nominated as a candidate running for Parliament in 1999.

To Don, probably his best post-accident accomplishment was to marry the lovely Maatje van Wyk in 2001. Apart from several other adventures, Don and his wife climbed the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, the year after their wedding. In addition Don, accompanied by his wife, not only twice completed a 4-day canoeing trip down the Orange River, but he was also the organiser and guide for both trips. Don and Maatje's first born baby, Matteo, was born to great joy on 15 October 2007 and their second, Francois, on 8 June 2009.

Don is a keen fresh and salt water fisherman and, since his accident, he has fished in places as far a field as Henties Bay Namibia, Kariba Zimbabwe, Zanzibar Tanzania, Basarutu Mozambique, Kwa-Zulu Natal South Africa, and of course all over the Cape. Don also busies himself with the leasing of residential property, building a spec house and has written a, yet to be published, inspirational autobiography. Last but not least, Don is a professional motivational speaker.


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Don Wessels | Published 19 April 2008 | Updated 01 November 2009