Van der Burgh steps up for clubfoot sufferers

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE in London

SOUTH Africa was almost robbed of Olympic gold and silver medals and world records 13 years ago. But Cameron van der Burgh stood to lose far more.

“I was mucking around on the diving boards, and I fell off and broke my ankle,” Van der Burgh said of an accident in Durban when he was 16.

“I went for an operation and the doctor said, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to swim breaststroke again because of the way you need to rotate your ankle’.

“When something gets taken away from you, you’re determined to get it back because of how much you love it and want it.

“I got back in the water and I trained, and I was stronger because of the sheer determination; I did everything I could.

“In my first season back I did my best times. I went from not even making finals to winning medals again.”

Now 29, the 2012 Olympic 100 metres breaststroke champion and a silver medallist four years later, and the current 100 metres and 50 metres short course world record-holder, has thrown his support behind Steps – a non-profit organisation dedicated to spreading the good news about a better way to treat clubfoot, the musculoskeletal defect that causes feet to be twisted down and inward.

“When something can take away your ability to be the best you can be in future, and you have the ability to change that, that’s an amazing thing,” Van der Burgh said.

“All you need is the knowledge and the willpower to get through it.”

Most of the parents of the 2000 children who will be born with clubfoot in South Africa this year probably will think surgery is the only option their babies have to live a life free of this challenge.

Not only would those parents be wrong, they could unwittingly be complicit in subjecting their children to years of pain and trauma.

Repeated trips to the operating theatre to have the relevant bones broken are not uncommon. Neither, in severe cases, are amputations.

But sufferers also have the option of a far less invasive procedure pioneered by Ignacio Ponsetti, an 89-year-old Spanish orthopaedic surgeon in Iowa who has been correcting the condition for 50 years. His method has a success rate of 95%.

Affected limbs are manipulated and put in plaster casts for the first four to eight weeks.

Patients then undergo a minor procedure under local anesthetic, then wear a brace on their feet fulltime for the next three months, and after that while sleeping. The correction stabilises between the ages of four and five.

Karen Moss became part of Ponsetti’s success story after her son, Alex, was born with clubfoot in 2003.

In 2005 she founded Cape Town-based Steps, which now has 26 partner clinics in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. The organisation works mostly with children from low-income households who are patients at state clinics.

Steps trains medics, supplies braces, supports the clinics it partners, and campaigns to raise awareness of the Ponsetti method.

“Being able to anything you want, 100%, is pure freedom,” Van der Burgh said.

The more than 10000 African children Steps had treated by the end of 2016 would no doubt agree.

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