It was in December last year, at 3:30AM. Helga Barkhuizen was in the passenger seat with a friend and his two children. They were on their way from Cape Town to Beafort West, on the N1 near the small town of Leeu-Gamka, 70 kilometers away.
The Miss South Africa International 2012 had had the time of her life at a biker rally and a new tattoo to boot. It still itched on her wrist.
The road to George was a familiar one for Barkhuizen. The road of the N1 lances through kilometer after kilometer of dry scrub.
Barkhuizen drifted off to sleep on the center console.
When she woke again, she saw the truck turning into a petrol station that was to crush her life.
“The car pulled to the right, I closed my eyes and I prayed, and I said you know what, this is it. I am ready to die,” she says.
In a few seconds, in a horror collision, a steel rod sticking out the back of the truck split the car in two slicing her left leg and shattering her right.
“My leg was on the floor in front of me. It was taken off in the accident. It wasn’t like I woke up in hospital, I said goodbye to my leg there and then,” says Barkhuizen.
But, by pure chance, an ambulance was at the petrol station.
“The first thing I told the paramedic was that he needed to give the driver something for shock. He was running around like a headless chicken. I get calm in emergency scenarios so I don’t actually freak out. And the paramedic was looking at me and saying ‘you do realize how hurt you are?’ I said yes I can see, but [the driver] needs to make phone calls right now, if he cannot verbally get my personal details across, then I am going to die,” she says.
It was also lucky for Barkhuizen that she remained conscious.
“I asked for the Jaws of Life and they said there was no chance. We can’t bring the jaws because you’ll be dead before we can get them here. The fact that I was kind of flexible and had been a dancer all my life saved my life. They bent me like a sandwich to pull me out of the car. Then they vacuum-packed my body into a black bag to keep the blood circulation going. I was literally sitting in a pool of my own blood before the 70 kilometer drive to the hospital,” she says.
Barkhuizen spent two months in a Cape Town hospital learning to live with her amputation. She was overwhelmed with the support her family gave her, who flew in regularly to visit. The others in the car accident walked away with scrapes and bruises.
“I didn’t know [the driver] had fallen asleep until about a month ago [July], when I went to see the car. Call it women’s intuition, like an ant itching in your bum, I felt like something was amiss. The panel beater said there was no chance that he had been driving 100 kilometers an hour and didn’t see the lights on the truck. The car was going at 160km/h when it hit the truck. It was when the driver touched the brake that I woke up and knew something was wrong.”
These days, Barkhuizen is full of life. She walks proudly around in her prosthetic, which costs R500,000 ($46,000), and is built to support high heels. She needs to buy two pairs of shoes though, one for her real foot and the other, a size larger, for the fake one.
The fake foot also needs to be charged, like a battery.
From her offices in Rivonia, Johannesburg, she runs an interior decorating company; a motivational speaking clinic for teens; an eco-tourism property development scheme and an executive lounge networking club. She has also designed a glow-in-the-dark rubber band engraved with your personal details – inspired from her accident. All this is done in a male-dominated business world.
“It’s difficult. You will see a pretty face and a skirt and they will think wow that is how she got there and you wouldn’t think she worked her bum off to get to that point. It’s very difficult to walk into meetings with cultural generalizations or with a specific certificate to get things done,” she says.
Barkhuizen is training to participate in the South African Paralympic swimming squad, plans to buy an automatic motorbike with a foot strap and dreams of scuba diving with an aquatic-friendly leg.
“Whatever came out of this, I knew I had to make the most of it, why stop living because I’ve lost one limb. There are so many things that are driving me, particularly my personal trainer and my businesses. I am young, I still want to get married, there is no reason for my life to be boring. It feels like I’ve been actually asleep for the past ten years. I’ve missed who I was,” she says.
You’ve got to listen to somebody who cheated death and prospered.