Aerial acrobat near-fatal accident survivor Kerry-lee Brandt: "I'm so grateful to be alive"


On 24 August 2014, five months after her wedding, Kerry-lee Brandt was performing a well-rehearsed trapeze sequence at Sun City when the rigging broke. The 28-year-old aerial acrobat plunged headfirst into the ground. Her life would never be the same.

Kerry-lee shares her story
As we were about to go from one pose to the next, my partner and I suddenly found ourselves tumbling six metres to the floor. I landed first; she landed on top of me, which unfortunately compounded my injuries. I must have blacked out as I fell, as I have no recollection about the accident. I was rushed to hospital in Rustenburg where my family was told I was in very bad shape.

I was unconscious and had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after landing on the right lower side of my head. I also had two broken collar bones, two broken wrists and my left ring finger had popped out of its skin. They were told there was a good chance I wouldn't survive, and for a long time my life hovered on that thin line as they nearly lost me five or six times. After my left arm was amputated above my elbow due to repeated clots, I was transferred to the Netcare Rosebank Hospital where I lay in a coma for the next six months.

Regaining consciousness

Although I have no memory of waking up, I was told that the first thing I said when I opened my eyes was "Hi Baby" to my husband Roi. It was a wonderful day for everyone because I had recognised him. I had absolutely no idea about what had happened to me. Apparently, I looked at my left arm, looked at Roi in shock and he said "Yes, Baby, your arm has gone." That triggered off the first of many, many tears. It was very hard to comprehend what was going on. I had difficulty communicating as I'd had a tracheotomy, and I was completely immobile, unable to walk due to my head injury and the muscle atrophy I'd suffered from being in a coma. As a result, I was in a wheelchair for two years.

Trying to understand what had happened

When you have a TBI, things come back very slowly, in small pieces. This is still happening even today, seven years down the line. In a way your brain is an amazing gift because your memories return bit by bit which gives you the time you need to try to process each part of the nightmare instead of all at once.

It's very difficult to come to terms with something like this happening to you. I've been through the whole grieving process and there are still times when I continue to do so. I've had my days of rage, anger, the 'why me's?'; times when I've literally been so down, I've been unable to get out of bed; days when I've sobbed uncontrollably. It's been a long journey to try to accept this new version of me and although I'm slowly getting there, there's still a long road ahead.

Reclaiming my life

I'm extremely positive by nature and very strong-minded too, so when I put my sights on something, I just need to do it. The 'it', in this case, is to reclaim my life which is why I threw myself into rehab right from the start. Over the years, I've worked extremely hard with an amazing team of speech therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists to get where I am today.

Being an occupational therapist (OT) by profession has made things a lot more difficult as I know exactly where I am in terms of recovery. But it's also been a great help as I'm able to discuss what I'd like to do each day with my rehab team. They, together with my amazing medical team, psychiatrist, my incredible family, friends and carer, have ensured that I've remained focussed and motivated on my journey of recovery. Being a member of Discovery Health has made a huge difference too as they have covered my bills every step of the way and continue to do so.

Facing the future

Although I've come a very long way, each day still brings along its challenges and I'm doing my best to cope. Three years ago, I received my very cool myoelectrical prosthetic left arm. It allows me to really grip things by opening and closing the 'fingers' which I do by thinking of flexing my biceps or triceps. My team is now working on my ability to multitask with my arm which involves both cognitive and physical ability with the aim to hopefully drive one day. My other goals are to be able to practise as an OT again and to start a family soon.

I'm still just as positive as I've always been and continue to work really hard. Aside from short-term memory loss and being a lot louder than my previous shy self, I'm pretty much the same Kerry-lee today. I'm now doing dance therapy which makes me feel quite awesome. Dancing and pole dancing have always been my biggest passions and although I can't do what I used to do, just standing in different positions and looking in the mirror gives me the biggest boost. I learn more and more from this experience each day and am so grateful to be alive.

What her medical team say

Carine Wood, Physiotherapist and CEO Operations MH&P RehabMatters Rehabilitation is about more than the just the physical and cognitive: it's about the person. A rehab team spends a multitude of hours intimately intertwined with their patients and their families, so it's inevitable that a bond forms. And with no one is it truer than with Kerry-lee who has a very special place in the heart of MH&P RehabMatters.

When we think of Kerry-lee the woman, we think of grit and determination. We think of graciousness and heart. We think of someone who, despite the challenges that may be facing her that day, is always willing to smile and celebrate the successes and moments of others. Kerry-lee is remarkable. Kerry-lee is an inspiration. We are humbled by her, each day. We have had the honour of walking Kerry-lee's journey with her from the very early days, until now, where it remains a joy and inspiration for all of us to share in and help her towards her aspirations. We all at MH&P RehabMatters salute you, Kerry-lee!

In Kerry-lee's words:
"My RehabMatters team, which includes occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech therapists, have all been absolutely amazing! They've been at my side right from the start, through thick and thin, ever since I was transferred to the Netcare Rosebank Hospital. They have all been a fantastic support over the years, literally picking me up and putting me back onto my feet! I feel very blessed and am very grateful to have them all on my team and really appreciate their hard work and everything they've done - and continue to do - for me."

Dr Jonathan D Moch, Psychiatrist
"Norman Doidge, a fellow psychiatrist, wrote a book in 2007: The Brain That Changes Itself. The chapters cover stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. A frontier idea is the phenomena of neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to change form and function by repetitive practice and experience. I was moved to understand the potential of the brain to heal and the arc of my career turned towards maximising brain health.

The chapter I would add to the next edition is the story of Kerry-lee Brandt. The traumatic incident in 2014 left her in coma, unable to eat, walk, talk, or care for herself. However, with incredible determination and focus, together with the care of medical professionals, Kerry-lee is an inspiration to fellow trauma victims: there is hope; there is the possibility to live a meaningful life and to still love without the constraints of blame and pity.

Her success is ultimately about the pivot of Kerry-lee's positive mindset and which I and many others are drawn towards. She has shown that neuroplasticity is possible - the brain can change itself, and she can talk again, walk again, teach again and live again.

Personally, I salute all the care workers, her family and Discovery Health who prove that there's an abundance of caring people, generous folk who go about their days quietly, under the radar, motivated, simply, by the sanctity of life.

In Kerry-lee's words:
I'm so very grateful that Dr Moch came into my life. He has played such an important role in my recovery and still continues to do so. This has been an extremely tough emotional journey and he's been a great person to assist me with everything I have been through, as well as a bar to lean on to help me to get back my strength, and to motivate me to keep on going.

Pictured in the collages above are Kerry-Lee's Rehab Matters care team of physiotherapists, Occupational Therapist, Administrators and guardian angels.

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