Life after near-death

Durban – “I feel like I’ve been swimming underwater for a long time and I’m finally coming up to the surface,” says Kirsten Bond.

Bond can remember nothing about September 20 2004, the day her life changed forever. “I can’t even remember waking up that morning,” she says. “All I remember is waking up in hospital roughly 40 days later.”

Bond had been working as a research technician at the game capture bomas in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park for Wayne Linklater, a PhD student funded by San Diego Zoo and the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University).

Her last sample

He was focusing his main study on the stress levels and behaviour of black rhino, which were being relocated to the Phinda-Munyawana Private Game Reserve.

Bond was in charge of monitoring the black and white rhino hourly and getting the primary dung sample from them. “This meant initially sticking my hand up the rhino’s bum – while wearing a glove obviously – to get a dung sample when they were captured and still sedated. Dung samples were then frozen and sent to the San Diego Zoo and analysed for stress hormones,” she explains.

After that, Bond continued to collect their first dung sample each morning. Seven months into the project, she went to do her last black rhino’s sample at about 09:00.

“I can’t remember a thing, but afterwards I was told that people had warned me his boma was made bigger than usual, as he was extremely stressed out,” Bond recalls. “I get so frustrated not being able to remember exactly what happened that day. I’d worked with rhino for so long. I thought I knew how to take care of myself.”

Bond has to rely on other people’s accounts of the event. The men who saved her life were Quinton Rochat and Induna Mhlongo, who were working in the Nyala pens nearby. “Quinton said they heard screams of terror coming from the boma where I was,” Bond explains.

Saved her life

Rochat and Mhlongo told Bond afterwards that they’d found the rhino picking her up and tossing her 10 metres into the air over and over again. Rochat jumped straight into the pen and Mhlongo stood above on the overhanging walkway with a flag. As black rhino are naturally inquisitive, they were able to distract it enough to leave Bond alone. According to Don Guy, who worked on the documentary Kirsten’s Journey for SABC 3, the two men working instinctively together are without doubt the reason Bond is alive today.

Bond had been gored all over her body, with the worst wound deep into her left thigh. Both her legs were badly broken. She was unconscious. She was airlifted to Richard’s Bay Hospital by helicopter where she spent 54 days in the intensive care unit. At one stage she was told she’d never walk again.

Gill Bond, Kirsten’s mother, had to drive to Richard’s Bay from Durban with her husband Steve after being phoned about the accident at 10:00.

“When I arrived I was told that Kirsten had reached the hospital with no pulse rate,” Gill says. “Immediately hospital staff cancelled all other operations and went to work on Kirsten. She had holes under her arms, in her legs and her left thigh was badly damaged where the horn had penetrated deeply. She had two broken ribs and an internal head injury.

31 units of blood

Throughout the whole experience she’d received 31 units of blood. It was a miracle that she didn’t lose any vital organs.”

Bond was kept in an induced coma for weeks so that she could heal, and the staff used their best medical expertise to save her life.

“When the orthopaedic surgeon operated on her leg, he told me that her sciatic nerve was hanging like a broken telephone wire,” Gill explains. “But he said I had to believe that she would walk again.”

Gill undercuts the hard months of nursing she gave her daughter after taking her home by saying that she took it day by day. She says kindness and prayers from many people helped her though it, as well as the support from the medical staff at the hospital. She also kept a diary and if she looks back at it now, she can see what a long way they’ve come.

“But Kirsten is still Kirsten, and we are very proud of her,” she says. “The accident changed her life, but these things happen for a reason.”

Cried the first time

After five months, Bond walked on crutches. Soon she managed without them. Eventually, she began working again with a number of short-term contracts. Then Bond went back to the rhino bomas to help Rochat’s girlfriend in the office. Each day she had to drive past the place she’d been gored. It took a while before she went back into the boma where the accident happened.

“I wept the first time I went in,” Bond explains. “But I wept a little less every time I went in after that. Finally I could drive past without even looking at the bomas.”

As part of the documentary initiated by Guy, who knew Bond before the accident, Bond met up with the rhino that gored her. “I faced him from a safe distance and made my peace with him,” she says. “But there were times when I hated him for not finishing the job he started. When I finally got over my denial and realised I’d never be quite the same again, and that I’d lost so much, I wished he had killed me. But don’t get me wrong. I’m still crazy about rhino!”

Irony

I am struck by the irony that Bond’s love of nature began when she won a drawing competition at the age of 12. Her prize was a trip to a game reserve. The picture which won her the competition was a detailed drawing of a rhino.

Now, Bond’s future looks promising. She has finally been given a permanent post at the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife head office in the permits department and hopes to work her way up to becoming a District Conservation Officer in a more rural environment, closer to her beloved beasts. She feels she has room to grow.

“For the first time in four years I feel as if I am good enough again,” she says. “After all this time of just having contract jobs in my conservation career, my stepping stones are finally a paved pathway.”

By Janet van Eeden, News24.

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