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Pellenberg: The Best Choice for Rehabilitation

Pellenberg near Leuven is far, almost an hour and a half drive from Pulderbos. But Jasper Verheyen thinks it is the best choice for his rehabilitation. “We get five, sometimes six or even seven hours of rehabilitation here a day,” he says. ‘I want to make as much progress as possible, and there is no better place than here. After my accident and operation, I spent three weeks in Geel. I can go home at the weekend, but I am here every weekday. I will have another roundtable discussion next week. Will I stay in Pellenberg for another six weeks, or longer? Don’t know. Once I have completed my recovery here, I will continue my outpatient rehabilitation in Geel. I can better combine that with my studies.’

Jasper started his professional bachelor’s degree in Sports and Exercise at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Turnhout last week. For the time being mainly through distance learning and self-study, but at the university they show understanding. ‘The head of department is himself in a wheelchair. He was here in Pellenberg in 1995. My best friend, Kevin Van Heuckelom, who was there when the accident happened, has just started the same study. I can use his notes. Really, without the support of my mother and a great friend like Kevin, I would not be here today. Thanks to them I found the courage to turn the switch. I have to, I have no choice.’

Back to June 7. Jasper is currently still attending TSO Sport on the De Vesten campus in Herentals. A study that is tailor-made for him, because he is extremely sporty. ‘I exercised 38 hours a week. I played football for ten years, but in the meantime I played padel at a high level. I went to the gym six days a week.’ A big contrast to the skinny legs he now sits in the wheelchair with. ‘I have lost twenty kilos from my legs. I can now move my upper legs again, so I am now trying to grow muscles there again.’

It was the last physical education lesson of the sixth grade, and that included a special trip for the students from the sports department to the SuperJump trampoline park in Geel. ‘I used to do a lot of somersaults, because I did freerunning, where you jump off walls and obstacles. Then you take much bigger risks. It is almost unbelievable that things go wrong in such a trampoline park. I did a somersault and landed on my back in one of those mousse containers. I immediately felt a burning tingling in my legs and could no longer move them. Then I got a shooting pain in my back. I knew: this is completely wrong. All my classmates were there. It was on the eighteenth birthday of my best friend, Kevin. We were going to have a party in the evening. But he canceled his party and went to the hospital. He also had the courage to inform my mother. No truck with gold is big enough to thank him for helping me. Just like my mother, by the way.’

© Dirk Vertommen

Only one way: forward

Jasper was operated on within an hour and a half in the hospital in Geel. There are twelve bolts in his back, under a 10-inch scar. Verdict: an incomplete spinal cord injury from L1 (L stands for lumbar vertebra) to L4. ‘If my nerve had been dented 1 millimeter further, it would have gone straight through and I would have had no chance of recovery. At first I had to lie flat. I now have feeling in my thighs again. I can walk short distances again, with orthoses or braces on my lower legs, and on crutches.’

Jasper shows the blisters on his wrist from the crutches. He practices hard. ‘But my feet don’t do anything yet. I do feel a constant tingling, burning sensation in my feet. Day and night, which is very difficult and also painful. It remains to be seen whether the feeling in my feet returns. The recovery of those nerves can take up to eighteen months, but it is equally possible that it never comes. I will probably have to use neuroswings for walking later. Sports like before are no longer possible.’

Jasper is well mobile with his upper body and arms. ‘I felt very bad. But especially my mother showed me that there is only one way: forward. I am very competitive and first wanted to do wheelchair padel, but there are no such clubs. Last weekend I trained for the first time at wheelchair tennis club Forest Wheels in Sint-Katelijne-Waver, with a sports wheelchair that was available there. Apparently I wasn’t that bad, because they have already asked me to participate in the Belgian Wheelchair Tennis Championships in Wallonia on October 14 and 15.’

Crowdfunding needed

Jasper himself does not think Paris 2024 is a realistic goal, he is now aiming for the Paralympics of 2028 or 2032. ‘But only one wheelchair will be reimbursed. We have to pay for the custom-made sports wheelchair ourselves. It costs 7,000 to 10,000 euros and normally lasts 4 to 8 years. I think it’s a shame. Such a sports wheelchair is considered a luxury product. If you have legs, yes, that’s a luxury, but not if you have legs that don’t cooperate.’ The crowdfunding has already raised 7,000 euros.

What the trampoline park said? Was there not enough mousse in the trap? ‘You jump there at your own risk, that’s what it says there. I have a sister and a little brother of seven. Now when I see him jumping on our garden trampoline, I always call him down. In any case, I can’t see it anymore.’

Jasper is determined to make his dream of representing Belgium a reality. “And I receive every gift from whom it is possible with great gratitude,” he says. ‘I’m going diving with Pellenberg later. It is not an obligation, rehabilitation patients who want to can participate. They let you broaden your horizons here, to show that a lot is still possible. I also had to make that mind switch.’

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