The doctors feared Martin had lost all his higher brain functions, but God—and one dedicated caregiver—knew otherwise.
- Posted on May 15, 2015
Faith inspired the name of the Alpha and Omega Care Center in Pretoria, South Africa—the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet representing the Lord and his son. That appealed to 22-year-old Virna van der Walt.
When she went to work there, in April of 1998, Virna had studied nursing and assisted at a homeopathic practice. Now she was ready for a challenge, providing day care to young people with crippling disabilities. Other institutions had turned these patients away. Alpha and Omega was their last hope.
“Who’s he?” Virna asked the head caregiver her first day, pointing to an older boy with cropped hair, slumped in a wheelchair in front of a television set. Barney the purple dinosaur danced on the screen.
“Don’t mind Martin,” the woman said. “He’s been here almost ten years. No higher brain function.”
MARTIN: That awful Barney. His dopey voice and shrill theme song. I wasn’t a kid. I was 22! Had I liked this stuff when I was younger? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember a lot of things. I also couldn’t move. I could only shift my eyes, jerk my head or contort my lips into a half smile. They said my gestures were involuntary muscle spasms.
Martin’s father dropped him off at the center every weekday morning at seven and picked him up after work. Virna introduced herself one day. “Tell me about your son,” she said.
“He was such a bright boy,” his father said with a sigh. “He could take apart our home computer and put it back together with his eyes closed. His younger brother and sister, David and Kim, were always trying to play with his elaborate LEGO creations.”
Martin was 12 when he got sick in 1988. Everyone thought it was the flu, but Martin spent months in bed. He grew disoriented and didn’t recognize anyone. Over time, he became completely unresponsive.
Doctors believed Martin had a neurological disorder. Tuberculosis of the brain? Cryptococcal meningitis? There was no answer and nothing medicine could do.
MARTIN: I gazed out the car window, watched the city whiz by. People walking down the tree-lined streets, young and old. Would I ever get to live like that? Dad toggled the radio to a news program. I listened to the places and names: Cape Town. Nelson Mandela. Apartheid. Things I only dimly understood.
For the past six years I’d been conscious of my surroundings, slowly piecing things together by listening. Like when Dad said I was a bright boy. I wanted to hug him. But I couldn’t help noticing he spoke in the past tense.
There was only one thing I was sure I had known forever: God. I didn’t remember church, or the Bible. But I knew God. I felt him. I wasn’t the only one who knew I was still inside my frozen body. God knew. I prayed he’d find a way to let someone else know too.
One Monday morning, Virna massaged mandarin oil into Martin’s skin. “Can you smell the oranges?” she asked. Aromatherapy was something she’d picked up from her last job—how different scents could engage the mind. A month into her position at Alpha and Omega, she’d volunteered to start a weekly aromatherapy massage program.
“My girlfriends and I watched a movie last weekend. You’d like this one, it’s called Star Wars.”
She thought she caught a tiny flicker in his eyes. Had she imagined it?
MARTIN: Virna was different. I drank in the citrus scent and raised my eyes. She was blonde. Around my age. Smiled a lot. I wanted to know more about that Star Wars movie. Was it that one about space my brother talked about? What was it like to have friends and watch movies together? I wanted to talk to her. But our time was up. I couldn’t wait for the following Monday.
Visiting another care center, Virna and her colleagues learned about new devices that let people communicate using slight movements—blinks, nods, twitches. Virna mentioned the flicker in Martin’s eyes to the other caregivers. “You’re so naïve,” one said.
MARTIN: Virna came in for our usual session. I was distracted. My brother had been sick over the weekend. Coughing a lot. Bronchitis. I wasn’t sure what that was, but I worried. Hadn’t my condition started with the flu?
Virna talked like always. But she was pausing, looking me in the eyes.
“Is everything okay, Martin?” Martin’s eyes looked down. “Are you sick?” No response. “Is someone in your family sick?” Martin’s lips formed a half smile. Did that mean yes?
“Is it your father?” No response. “Your mother?” Nothing. “Your brother?” Martin gave another half smile.
“So it’s your brother,” Virna said. “Does he have a cold?”
Martin jerked his head. A no?
She touched her ear, nose, forehead. She tapped her chest. “Pneumonia?” she asked.
Martin’s head jerked to the side.
“Is it bronchitis?”
Martin looked her straight in the eye. Another half smile.
MARTIN: I wanted to tell her everything, about all the time I’d felt alone, about that stupid Barney. I felt elated. Transcendent. Like...like stepping into a warm bath after being out in the cold for years. What it must have felt like when I was a child, held by my mother and father. Love, that was the word I was searching for. The way only God had made me feel. Loved. I had a friend.
“Martin understands,” Virna told the others. They scoffed. Even his parents were skeptical. They’d been assured their son’s movements were only the spasms of a damaged brain.
Virna kept telling Martin about her life. She asked him questions and deciphered his answers by his system of smiles and nods. Finally she persuaded her superiors to recommend him for an assessment at the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at the University of Pretoria.
MARTIN: The doctors held up different cards with pictures. “Do you like hamburgers?” I saw a cup of tea, a sun, and a juicy burger. Eyes to the burger. Success! Next card.
Everyone saw I was alive inside. Eventually I regained use of my hands so I could type. Mom and Dad got me a computer that read the words out loud. Finally I had a voice again! I went on to earn a degree in computer science and started my own web development business. I even met a friend of my sister who enjoyed watching Star Wars with me…though that wasn’t the reason we fell in love. Today, Joanna and I are married and live in London.
Doctors never did diagnose my illness or explain my recovery. That doesn’t bother me, the things I don’t know. What I do know is that without Virna, I might have been lost forever. And I know Who brought Virna to Alpha and Omega.
Martin Pistorius is the author of Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body (Thomas Nelson, 2013).
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