180 Degree Turn
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Meeting Jacques Willaarts for lunch in a restaurant certainly attracts attention. Chairs have to be moved to make room for his heavy electric wheelchair, he needs shade due to the fact that he can no longer sweat because of his injury, and he needs the help of his nurse to be able to eat or drink at all. “Being constantly dependent on others was the biggest challenge in the beginning,” the Dutchman reveals.
Jacques lived in the fast lane before his fateful accident. He was a successful real estate agent with a small team. During the little leisure time he allowed himself, he challenged his performance limits on a bicycle. At the weekend, he did his best to be there for his wife and two children. “If you ask me today if I was really happy back then, I would have to say no. I simply didn’t have enough time for my family.”
Jacques was – as so often – out and about on his bicycle on the 18th of September 2013. It merely took one car driver to overlook him for a fraction of a second. He was thrown over the windscreen and landed heavily on his back.
“I woke up in a bed, completely disoriented. I couldn’t remember returning home.” His wife Ingeborg had to tell him about his serious accident and inform him that he was in a hospital.
Jacques soon drifted back off into a deep sleep under the influence of strong painkillers. Two days later, when he managed to stay awake a little longer, he tried to piece together the course of events. He couldn’t comprehend the situation. “All I could do was press the button that calls the nurse. Apart from that, I was completely immobile.” It was a very difficult time – not only for him, but also for his family. “My daughter and son were both teenagers at the time. My son was especially withdrawn and dealt with many aspects of the situation with his girlfriend. My wife was always there to take care of me in this exceptional situation. Naturally, the new situation created a little tension too,” the 58-year-old recalls.
A doctor finally informed Jacques about his condition. The diagnosis was an incomplete spinal cord injury at the level of the third cervical vertebra. This meant that certain bodily functions may return, but some are lost forever. “He told me that I would be bedridden and require artificial respiration for the rest of my life.” This information shattered the life of the family man. “Your life takes a 180 degree turn in such a moment. I always thought I would be able to cope on my own, but I suddenly needed people to help me – constantly.”
Jacques embarked on a difficult personal journey. He was transferred to a rehab centre, where he spent an entire year. The list of his milestone achievements includes breathing independently, moving his head, and regaining minimal mobility in his fingers and arms.
“I was allowed to go home at the weekends. I learned to do things differently, to embrace help, and developed a positive attitude towards life.” Jacques hired nurses and caregivers to take care of him. He resumed his work, but delegated more. Jacques believes his second life has its positives. “There are sad moments, of course. I am, however, not as rational as I used to be, but much more emotional. Also, I have more time to spend with my family and friends.”
Giving Something Back
Ingeborg surprised her husband with a very special Christmas gift in 2015. “She presented me with a photo of herself in a wedding dress and asked if I would like to marry her again.” Jacques said yes and began planning another wedding after 23 years of marriage. “Today, our life is very different than it was before, but Ingeborg still wanted to marry me again despite everything. I think that was a beautiful gesture.”
The couple committed to each other in front of an altar once again. Ingeborg even wore her original wedding dress. “Instead of bringing gifts, we asked our wedding guests to donate for Wings for Life,” Jacques says. He stumbled upon our foundation while doing some private research. The great success spurred him on to do more. A few months later, he organised a classical concert featuring a number of renowned artists and donated the proceeds to spinal cord research.
“I just want to do something and help make spinal cord injuries curable.” Even though Jacques insists that he is content, he would dearly love to regain more mobility in his hands. He’d love to be able to eat and drink in a restaurant without help…
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