Disability is a State of Mind
For many people being born with a disability would be a life sentence of limitations but for others like Samantha Stander this was not her truth. She explains how the one thing that turned her life around was a positive mind-set.
Born and raised in the small town of Cradock, Eastern Cape, Samantha says that she grew up in a loving family with parents that would do anything for her. When Samantha was very young her parents noticed a difference with their new born baby girl’s legs and decided to take her to the doctor.
“My parents said that they first took me to an orthopaedic surgeon who told them that I have congenital developmental dysplasia of both my hips and when doctors and professors alike examined the severity of the dysplasia, they all came to the conclusion that I would never walk.”
Congenital developmental dysplasia is abnormal hip formation leading to unstable hips.
“My femur heads of both my left and right legs were not formed correctly and neither was my acetabulum (socket that the femur head connects into), so basically when I walk the only thing holding my hip together are the little notches and my muscles.
“They tried their best to rectify the problem, but the spica cast which I wore for almost 15 months did not help. They told my parents to prepare for the worst.
“My parents were young and while they were hearing all this bad news, they continued to believe that I would pull through and walk, even though it would have been a miracle according to doctors.”
Samantha was determined to defy the odds. While she developed more slowly than other children, she used her upper body strength to drag herself across the floor.
“My mom said it was an early Christmas present when on the 23rd of December, I took my first steps at the age of 1 year and 4 months. She called the orthopaedic surgeon and told him that I was walking. No one could believe it, because they thought that there was no hope.”
Samantha adds that a few weeks later she went back to the doctor where x rays were taken.
“The specialists said that according to the X Rays I was not supposed to walk because my hips were not balanced. Inexplicably, I continued to walk since then. My walk was practically normal besides a limp.”
Even though Samantha was considered a miracle, when she began school she endured bullying.
“My earliest memory was in Grade 1, a group of kids would always make fun of the way I walked. Living in a small town, I was known as the girl who walks funny. The bullies were in the same class as me. They would make my life hell, torment me with notes saying that they are going to hurt me. Sometimes they would hit me, to the point where I would bruise.
“I remember being so scared that I would spend my break time in class with my teacher because I was too scared to go play outside. I spoke to my mom and she raised it with the principle a few times, but nothing really happened.”
Samantha says that because there is only one primary and high school in the town, when she began high school the bullies followed.
“Due to my condition, doctors had instructed me that I could not play any sport except swimming. Sport was a big deal at the school and if you didn’t play you were looked at as lazy, and basically shunned. During this time the bullying intensified. They would corner me whenever they could and take my stuff, hit me, call me names. My mom came to the school and demanded that the principal do something, but nothing concrete ever came from it again.
“One of the ways I got through was talking to my parents, especially my dad, I call him my best friend because I always felt I could discuss anything with him. He is the softer one who would do a lot of the girly things with us like plait my hair. My mom the strong one, who took no nonsense.”
Samantha says that while she endured emotional and physical abuse from the bullies, she was going through immense pain physically due to her disability.
“As I've become older the pain has increased. I would compare my pain to being stabbed continuously in the same spot over and over again. Things people take for granted like walking is an extremely painful thing for me.
“But I was not ready to let my condition to take the best from me. According to the doctors, my bones reached maturity at the age of 16. The minute they told me that it was okay to now play sports, I enrolled for hockey and squash. This is when I started my fitness journey and began strengthening my muscles. This process was not easy because running was even more painful than walking. To overcome the challenge I would request to be the goalie because there isn’t much running, and I could still play the sport.
“My first hockey match my parents were fully supportive and were both at the game. It was a dream come true for me and for them because I was finally part of the team. The team welcomed me, and I began making friends. I think it was because of this that the bullying subsided.”
As Samantha approached the end of high school, she began looking at careers to go into after leaving school.
“I went to a career counsellor, he did a few tests to gauge my strengths and interests. He suggested that I study medicine, I felt like I was not that strong academically so when he said that I would also do well in engineering, I opted for engineering.”
“Even though I did not believe I would be accepted to study medicine I applied to both. I was accepted to study mechanical engineering and I was happy because I wanted to create prosthesis for orthopaedic patients. The day I received my second acceptance letter I was with my dad in the hospital, he was going to have knee replacement surgery. I had been accepted to study medicine at Stellenbosch University, I took it as a sign and I accepted.”
Following her decision, Samantha moved to the Western Cape to pursue her qualification.
“Moving was overwhelming at first, coming from a small town and then having to handle student life was not easy. Being on my own without the closeness of my family in a strange environment unsettled me.
“On one occasion, I had driven to the shop and on my way back to my residence I was involved in an attempted hijacking. I slightly remember them trying to break my window, me hooting and hoping the campus security who were close by would hear. Luckily, they heard and rushed to help scaring the hijackers away.”
Samantha says that this led her to spiral downwards.
“I was feeling scared about what just happened, struggling to find my place at University, in pain because of my condition and being incredibly homesick. I began to comfort eat, I would go to the McDonalds Drive-through almost every day and sometimes eat two meals at a time.”
Samantha continued this behaviour for close to a year.
“My weight ballooned to the heaviest I have ever been, I remember feeling horrible about myself. I was in constant pain, getting out of bed became difficult, studying almost impossible. But I continued to eat. I was depressed and unhappy with my physical appearance, so I started walking and doing exercises, even though it was extremely painful.
“I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking that I no longer want to go on, at least not like this. I decided to put pen to paper and write down a few goals such as: running 200 meters and climbing a flight of stairs without stopping half way up. I changed my habits: ate differently and exercised often. In the next year, I managed to smash my goals and lost 40kgs bringing my fitness level up.
“I remember my daily mantras: ‘where there is a will there is a way’, ‘you will be in pain today, but your body will thank you tomorrow’, ‘no disability will stop me from reaching my goals.’
Today, Samantha describes herself as a fitness addict and has completed 56 races, including all kinds of road running, trail running, aquathons, triathlons, duathlons, mountain bike races and obstacle course races.
Samantha concludes by saying: “When I began my fitness journey I would keep myself motivated by thinking of a Mark Twain quote - Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. I want people to know that our disabilities are in our minds … whatever we put our minds to, we can achieve.”
Samantha is a Grind obstacle course brand ambassador