Kelvin’s Rehabilitation Fund
Acc No: 627 763 173 75
Branch Code: 250 655
A Young Adventurer
Kelvin was born with an adventurous spirit that intensified with time. He often chose not to conform, didn’t follow the rules and has gone through life independently forging his own path, much to the delight and, sometimes disbelief of both of his parents, Douglas and Leigh.
Leigh reflects on her son’s spirit and achievements in a manner only a parent – as witness to their entire lives – can do.
“As a young child he started playing cricket. I’d come home from work and the parents would gather on the road, wine in hand, and the kids would play cricket until the sun went down and the wine ran out. He proved to be very good and went on to play Gauteng Junior cricket for 4 years.
Kelvin has always been incredibly competitive. He played to win, always. And if he didn’t win he was furious, with the team and with himself for not excelling. He pushed himself to do better, to be better and to achieve more.
In high school his passion for cricket waned and golf became his new passion. At 16 he was playing off a 5. Kelvin would play golf come rain, hail or snow. Every weekend he was on the course playing 18, and sometimes 36 holes. This was his passion. He went on to play 1st team Golf for his school.
And as quickly as golf became his passion, his focus swiftly turned to squash, where he made it to the 1st team squash for his school as well as playing league. His sporting interests started taking on tennis, hockey, table tennis, snooker and the list goes on. Kelvin has always been a keen and gifted sportsman. It didn’t matter what sport he tried his hand at, he possessed a natural talent and succeeded without much effort.
And then paragliding came along and he was sold, it was his life, his passion, his reason for waking each day. Kelvin, as a little boy would spend weekends on the ridge with his father, watching his father fly, helping lay out gliders, his little face brightened with excitement and wonder, an ardor slowly being nurtured. He would watch the pilots soar with the eagles and rush to tell me, his face bright with excitement. He loved the sport, and at the age of 16 he had his first lesson and that was to become the way he spent all his leisure time. He wanted to fly, he wanted to compete, he wanted to prove himself.”
In true Kelvin fashion, he proved to be a very competent and capable pilot, competing in many competitions, and winning novice class in 2015, he is also the youngest pilot in SA to have flown an amazing 306km cross country.
“The only direction Kelvin saw was up in the clouds, floating above the ground, being carried by the thermals, flying with the eagles and embracing the freedom of the open skies”
“Fortunately, Kelvin was strong academically and never really had to put much effort into succeeding. He spent most of his school days causing havoc in class, chirping teachers and being a carefree, fun loving teenager, with a steely grit and determination to succeed in paragliding, that delighted and scared me as his mother.
He matriculated and went on to Wits University to further his studies. Kelvin and I had many debates about what field of study he should focus on, and, what he wanted to do with his future. He wanted flying to be his future, whereas I wanted him to forge ahead with tertiary studies. Eventually, I won those debates and he registered for a BA degree, with my hope that in the 3 years it would take him to graduate, he would have more direction for his future career. Admittingly, my plan failed. The only direction Kelvin saw was up in the clouds, floating above the ground, being carried by the thermals, flying with the eagles and embracing the freedom of the open skies.” says Leigh.
Mentor and friend, Leon Viljoen, reflects on Kelvin’s paragliding achievements.
“Kelvin het op ‘n jong ouderdom baie belangstelling getoon in vlieg. Terwyl hy by Dunnotter help met ‘winching’, begin Kelvin leer vlieg onder Hendrik se toesig.
Op n vlug vanaf Eagles Nest, toe ek naby wigwam kom, sien ek ‘n rooi glider onder my in ‘n ligte thermal. Op daardie stadium het ons mekaar nog nie goed geken nie. Ek kon wel sien die outjie kan nogal n thermal core.
Later sluit hy onder my mentorskap aan by Hartebeespoort dam. Die wakende oog wat Tracey hou oor die mense onder die mentorskap program en Kelvin se hardkoppigheid lei tot stampe en stote tot Kelvin sy Sport lisensie kry en die mentorskap program kan verlaat. Onder my mentorskap het ek gou gesien hy het baie potensiaal en ons dink dieselfde. Vinnig raak ons ”Big Buddies” en hy is soos my seun.
Die mannetjie verstaan van vlieg en sy belangstelling is groot.
Nog nie eers 19 jaar oud nie en hy het al seker by die dertig 100km vlugte en so paar 250km vlugte.
In Copperton kry hy reg wat baie ‘pilots’ al vir jare probeer, om meer as 300km te vlieg. Hy word die eerste 19 jarige Suid Afrikaner wat 306km ver vlieg. Hy is nou die enigste van 5 in SA wat dit gedoen het.”
A Life-Changing Accident
On 29 June 2018, Kelvin Van Baalen was paragliding in a competition in Barberton, in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, one of many competitions he has participated in, in the past. This, however, was the one that was going to change his life forever. On his last flight, the conditions weren’t good, he scratched around a bit to try find a thermal and gain height. He was coming in to land, saw the power lines at the very last minute, turned his wing too hard and spun straight into the lines. He felt a power surge and then was knocked unconscious. He awoke to find himself engulfed in flames.
“But his incredible will to live kicked in. He rolled around on the grass to put the flames out and climbed a tree to escape the veld fire”
Kelvin remembers what happened to him and tears well up in his eyes when he whispers to his mother, Leigh van Baalen, “mom, I thought I was going to die”. But his incredible will to live kicked in. He rolled around on the grass to put the flames out and climbed a tree to escape the veld fire, which he had started. This is where his father, Douglas Van Baalen, found him, naked, burnt, traumatised, and in shock – clinging to a branch.
A fellow paraglider saw what happened and was able to drop a location pin so Kelvin could be found. His father carried his burnt, dying son to the ambulance, where he was airlifted to the Milpark hospital, burns unit. The call his mom received, “Leigh, there’s been an accident, Kel has flown into power lines and isn’t moving,” is a call that was to change the family’s lives forever. Leigh says she will never forget the sound of the chopper landing at Milpark, knowing her burnt child was in it, but not knowing whether he was alive or dead.
The Road Kelvin has Come
“It is hard to forget that horrendous ambulance trip from the Barberton crash site to Nelspruit airport. Save for the skill of Kim, ER24’s advanced paramedic Kelvin might not even have made it to the helicopter. Heavily sedated, having had over 6liters of fluid resuscitation, we handed him over the the Medevac team, not knowing if we would ever see him again. To put it in context… using the simplest predictive formula (% body surface area burnt + age) has Kelvin’s expected mortality at over 80%. But I know this boy is a real fighter!” Mark Human, fellow paraglider, friend and doctor-on-scene
Kelvin was admitted to the Milpark hospital – renowned for its exceptional burns unit – in a critical condition with 62% full body burn.
He had a collapsed lung, failing kidneys, was severely dehydrated and hanging onto life by a thread. Plastic surgeons were called in immediately as Kel required extensive debridement before the multiple skin grafts could begin. The amazing team of urologists, pulmonologist, cardiologists, physicians, nursing staff and psychologists worked tirelessly to save Kelvin’s life. He battled sepsis, multiple infections and then pneumonia and will be kept in ICU lockdown for months to come. He is awake after a month-long coma, weak but fighting.
The Road Ahead
“I cannot touch him; my hands are too hot. He is surrounded by ice packs; his room is cool. He is living in the flames. The heater scares him, the lights in the room are too bright, he fears being on his own.”
This brave 21-year-old, who once had a full, exciting life ahead of him, now faces years of grafts, reconstructive surgeries, rehabilitation and psychological therapy. He is afraid of the dark, afraid to be left alone, afraid of the pain and afraid that he may still lose his left leg. He holds ice packs constantly as he is convinced his body is burning and will need to wear compression garments for at least 18 months to keep his wounds soft and aid healing.
Leigh says, “I look at my perfect, carefree, fun loving, good looking, adventurous, witty child, with a future as bright as his smile, and my heart is in pieces. I am living my worst nightmare.
“Kelvin, that free spirit, is imprisoned in his body, in his mind. He is caught in the flames. I cannot touch him; my hands are too hot. He is surrounded by ice packs; his room is cool. He is living in the flames. The heater scares him, the lights in the room are too bright, he fears being on his own.”
He is anxious, he wants to know why? “Why me?” he asks. He will have to find his own truth, a truth that he can live with. He will have to find his “new normal”, because his old normal is no longer.
In a moment, the carefree days of his youth are gone, and in their place, unimaginable pain, suffering and heartache. He now faces a long, horrifying ordeal to come back to his family, to conquer again and continue to live the life he was born to live. We do not know what the future holds for this bright young man, but there is no doubt that he is destined for BIG things.
Kelvin knows what happened and he understands the severity of his wounds. When the doctors expose his wounds, he is awake. Kelvin is a fighter. And he is fighting… fighting to get up and walk, fighting to go home, but most of all he is fighting to soar with the eagles once more.
How YOU can Help
Adventurers understand that risk forms a large part of the activities they undertake. There is a freedom and a liberation that exists where the rewards of an adventure activity outweigh the risks. This is where we feel truly alive – not because we are tempting fate or pushing boundaries – but because we are engaging our body, mind and soul in the activities we were designed for.
Kelvin’s story speaks to some of our darkest fears. Every time one engages in an adventure activity we trust that the worst will not happen to us. Kelvin is grappling with the reality that it happened to him. Nobody can explain why bad things happen to good people – the only truth is than nobody is immortal, nor immune to accidents.
Kelvin has a very long road ahead in terms of physical and mental recovery. He will need ongoing care and measures that will help him adjust to his new normal. To this end, his parents have set up a trust and bank account through which they invite people to assist in easing the financial burden.
Kelvin also needs emotional support so that he is not overcome by the pain, the isolation, the unanswered questions and the many fears for his future. His fellow sportsmen, particularly those who have lived through hardship and come out the other side have much to offer and are encouraged to reach out to Kelvin and his family.
Kelvin’s Rehabilitation Fund
FNB Norwood Acc No: 627 763 173 75 Branch Code: 250 655