He was a typical boy who was born healthy and grew up normal and beloved by his parents. But when Martin Pistorius turned 12, a debilitating illness began to take over his body. The doctors didn’t know how to help, and before long, Martin was completely paralyzed of mind and body.
Twelve years passed until Martin started to come back around. His progress was slow and at first wasn’t even noticed by those around him. When he finally woke back up, he revealed a painful truth: one that no one ever expected…
Life in South Africa
Martin Pistorius was a little boy just like any other. He was an active child who loved watching cartoons and was obsessed with resistors, transistors, anything to do with electronics. It was the early 1980’s and Martin was growing up with his parents in South Africa. Everything was perfect for their family, that is, until the day that Martin got sick.
It started out simple enough: 12-year-old Martin was complaining about a sore throat. But as the doctor visits increased and the symptoms became more and more severe, Martin’s parents were beginning to get worried. Martin had come down with a rare form of cryptococcal meningitis and tuberculosis of the brain. The disease slowly deprived Martin of his motor functions and it was only getting worse…
Martin’s condition was incurable, and the symptoms got progressively worse. Eventually, the boy lost the ability to move by himself entirely. Then, as if by some cruel twist of fate, he stopped being able to make eye contact. Finally, he even lost his ability to speak. It was as if he had entered a coma: a terrifying coma that slowly took hold of the frightened little boy until he was little more than a vegetable.
Wait for Death
Martin’s parents, Rodney and Joan Pistorius, pleaded with the doctors for some sign that the disease was reversible. That their little boy would one day recover his motor functions, his brain functions. But it was not to be; they told him that all they could do was take him home and keep him comfortable until he died. Only, Martin didn’t die…
A Father’s Duty
The Pistorius’ son was trapped in his body, unable to die and unable to move. Once he turned 14, it became clear that he was going to survive. His parents decided then that they would do whatever they could to help keep him comfortable. It started at first as home care visits during the day. At night, Martin’s father would take over. He would get up every two hours during the night to turn his son, just so he wouldn’t develop any bed sores.
Once they realized they couldn’t do it alone, his parents signed him up for a local care center. His father would get up every day at 5 o’clock in the morning, get him dressed, load him in the car, and take him to the special care center for the day. Eight hours later, he’d pick him up, bathe him, feed him, and put him in bed. For years, that was their routine…
A Mother’s Confession
Joan Pistorius was losing her grip. The struggle to keep up with her son’s needs, with the burden he had become and the suffering she felt he must be in, was too much to bear. One day, at her lowest, Joan walked up to her son and said, out loud, “I hope you die.” It was a plea to God perhaps, or to the fates that they end the struggle Martin and his family were going through. She was told he couldn’t hear the outside world in his condition…
Then, when Martin was around age 16, he began regaining consciousness. At first, he wasn’t aware of what had been happening, he couldn’t even sense others around him. But as his mind came back to him, he soon realized that he could hear others, sense their presence. He had heard the cruel thing his mother had said to him in her time of despair. Yet, he still could not impart anything to those around him. He couldn’t move at all…
Here but Not There
Before long, Martin was aware of everything, just like any normal person would be. But he couldn’t express himself, couldn’t move his eyes, or wiggle a toe, his brain and his body were disconnected. This realization was a worse shock than all the others, he was a boy in a man’s body now and he was trapped within himself.
Meanwhile, everyone in Martin’s family had been so used to him not being there that they ignored him. Even if he could have made a sign to let them know he was there, they wouldn’t have seen it. The stark reality finally hit him: he was going to spend the rest of his lifetime trapped in his own mind, totally alone, with only his thoughts for company. He would never know true love, never have children, never work in electronics. There was no escape…
Martin Pistorius’ only option was to leave his thoughts behind, to become blank so that he didn’t have to deal with the futility of his situation. Martin began to disengage his thoughts. In a sense, he allowed himself to fall back into the darkness and vanish. Unfortunately, there were some things Martin couldn’t ignore.
“I Love You…”
The entire world still thought that Martin was a vegetable, so they did what they would do with anyone they thought might not be aware of their surroundings: they plopped him in front of a TV. The staff at the special care center would leave him for hours staring at the the TV, watching endless reruns of children’s shows like Barney & Friends. And that was just the beginning of their cruelty…
Each day, Martin would be filled with dread at the thought that his parents would be taking him to the care center. People in the care home would pull his hair and make his eyes water, they would crash the metal spoon against his teeth while force-feeding him, they would yell and scream at him for minutes at a time. Sometimes they would feed him scalding hot tea or soup when he got sick, or slap him around, knowing that he couldn’t fight back.
One woman would even come into the room and straddle Martin to simulate sex with him. She would touch him inappropriately, make him feel worthless and completely powerless. He wanted to run, to complain to stop what was happening to him. Or at least to tell someone what they were doing to him, if only to get it to stop. And despite wanting to give up, Martin kept on living, hoping that one day he might be free…
One, Nagging Thought
Martin focused hard on things that were negative to him. It was an effort to try and reframe those terrible thoughts like his mother saying, “I hope you die.” It was worse than anything else he had experienced at the hands of the care center employees and he began to wrestle with it. Why would his mother say that? Perhaps it was time to try and understand her desperation, her sorrow.
In time, Martin began re-engaging with his thoughts. He knew that in order to heal and fight the depression and loneliness he was feeling, he had to strengthen his mind. Slowly, his mind felt better and then, as if by some miracle, so did his body. Inside his brain, the neurons were reknitting, he was coming back to himself, to awareness and soon, to movement…
Soon Martin was capable of making small movements. Initially, his parents and caregivers didn’t notice the movements. They had spent so much time knowing that he couldn’t move, that they could scarcely believe their own eyes when they saw an odd twitch. Then one day, Virna van der Walt, an aromatherapist, began to notice that Martin would react to specific statements or questions.
At the age of 25, Martin Pistorius regained his full consciousness and a great deal of his mobility. In time, he forgave his parents for the things they’d said. He understood the desperation because he had felt it too at times. Before long, Martin met his wife Joanne, a social worker, on the internet. In 2009, he asked her to marry him…
Life Goes On
Martin and Joanne currently live in Harlow. Things are still difficult for him sometimes, for instance, he speaks with the aid of a voice synthesizer, but overall he has learned a lot from his time trapped within himself. He had to relearn all of his essentials, math, the alphabet, but picked it all up quickly. He even earned a degree.
A Drive Unlike All Others
Martin’s next milestone is learning to drive. All he needs now is an instructor to help teach him in an adapted car. He passed the theory test with flying colors, in the meantime, and is well-versed in the art of piloting his electric wheelchair. Ultimately, driving should be a piece of cake for a young man who has been through so much.