We spend time with Sonja Nel, a courageous mom who said YES  to tissue donation

It is always deeply emotional to lose a loved one.  When her son Werner passed away, Sonja decided to honour him through tissue donation.

Werner Nel was an exceptional person – in life and in death.

Not many people get the opportunity to receive a tissue donation and then have the honour of donating the same at the end of their life. Werner was destined to be this exceptional.  Sonja tells his story.

“Werner loved life. Flying was his passion.”

Sonja continues:  “Werner was involved in a serious motorcycle accident at the age of 20.  His right leg was amputated high above the knee and he sustained serious injuries to his right shoulder and the bones in his elbow and forearm were crushed.  He was at risk of losing his arm and doctors implanted bone from a donor into his forearm to save the arm.”

Emma and Sandra Venter, Awareness & Recovery Manager, Vitanova

At the time of the accident, Werner was training to be a pilot and had already passed 7 of the 8 required Commercial Pilot’s Licence exams.  As soon as he woke up, he told everyone that he decided to complete his training and that he would not let his injuries stand in his way of becoming a qualified pilot.

When he left the hospital six weeks after the accident, Werner put his heart and soul into rehabilitation and healing.  He adapted to life with a prosthetic leg and regained full use of his injured arm.

A few months after being discharged, Werner was in the air again.  He passed the last exam to become a commercial pilot.  “This short sentence can never convey the pain, suffering and frustration he had to endure before he was able to take off and land an aeroplane again. I saw him cry, heard him swear, saw him throw stuff but I never, ever heard him complain or feel sorry for himself. He was 100% focused and determined”, says Sonja.

Werner’s experience inspired him to show other amputees that the loss of a limb did not mean giving up on your dreams.  Being an aerobatic pilot was a childhood dream and with typical tenacity, he found a suitable plane and instructors willing to train him

He founded a non-profit organisation called Flying Bear, to motivate young amputees to live a happy and successful life and becoming anything they dreamt they could be.  His first solo flight was a highlight and Sonja says that she had never been more proud of her son.

A sad twist of fate …

Exactly eight years to the day after Werner’s motorcycle accident, he took to the sky for one more sortie on a beautiful day.  Sadly this would be his last flight.  The engine stalled, causing the plane to crash and ending Werner’s life.

“The moment I realised the significance of the date, I experienced profound peace and I had absolutely no doubt that Werner’s Creator allowed him to return to his life 8 years ago – albeit with only one leg – because it was his destiny to inspire, motivate and encourage people who had suffered hardship.  To this day, I still believe that Werner had fulfilled an 8-year ‘contract’ with flying colours and his job here on earth was done”, says Sonja.

A mother’s courage

After Werner’s passing, Sonja was asked if she would be willing to donate Werner’s bones and tendons.  “At first I was confused.  Like many people, I did not know that tissue could be donated after death.

Emma and Sandra Venter, Awareness & Recovery Manager, Vitanova

The tissue donation coordinator explained the process and after discussing it with Werner’s brother Stef, we agreed because we both felt instinctively that Werner would absolutely jump at the opportunity to still be of service even after his ‘contract’ had expired.”

Paying it forward

Sonja realised that Werner who received a tissue donation eight years earlier, which helped him realise his dream of flying, now helped more than 65 people by ‘paying it forward’ through being a tissue donor.  “That realisation brought me absolute acceptance of Werner’s death.  Every moment from that day to this moment, I still feel the most profound peace knowing that Werner has come full circle and left this life leaving far more behind than what he ever took. It is so heart-warming to know that bits of him are still alive somewhere. It never crosses my mind that he is gone forever as he is not. I don’t have words to describe the feeling of peace and the sense of fulfilment that this gift has brought to his brother and me.”

It is my mission to ‘pay it forward’ on Werner’s behalf by telling his story far and wide and thereby encouraging as many people as possible to register as organ and tissue donors”, says Sonja. “We can take nothing with us when we leave this life and this body but we can be the change in someone’s life through this gift, giving someone who feels hopeless and devastated the means to live a full and meaningful life.”

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