Kissinger's Story Part One

December 15 2016

In the first of a two part series, Kissinger Deng, a Paralympian living in Norway, recalls the events that led to his injury, and his difficult journey towards recovery. It's been far from easy, but there have been many  triumphs along the way and Kissinger is happy to share his whole story with you.

Kissinger story part one

Living the dream

I was born in 1979, in Sudan. My family are a part of the Dinka tribe. When I was nine years old we fled to Egypt to escape the conflict in my own country. I took up basketball there at twelve years old, and it quickly became my biggest passion, and I pursued my goal of playing in the NBA with absolute focus. I ate slept and dreamt basketball. At fifteen I played my first match as a professional. I was making fast progress on my way to achieving my dream as my team progressed through a tournament. Later that summer we made it to the finals for the under 17s. This was going to be a big match and I thought to myself - could this be the game that was going to take me and my family out of Egypt?

At that time, I felt my life was perfect; I was a young basketball player, surrounded by girls. What more can a 16 year old boy ask for? This feeling of perfection was going to be dealt the hardest of knocks, something I could never have anticipated. I saw only my dreams ahead of me, never obstacles. When I closed my eyes and thought of the future, I only saw myself in a basketball court with the number 23 on my jersey, just like Michael Jordan. I was ready to take the world by storm!   

The day before the big match, I was in church. The sun was shining and the last place I wanted  to be was at Sunday School. We waited a long time for the teacher as he was delayed. I found a tennis ball to play basketball on the roof while we waited. I had the ball and was going to score a point. I decided to try to copy Michaels Jordan’s signature move, a “slipping in the air”. As I jumped backwards to get the point I forgot to look behind me. I was right at the edge of the roof. I lost my footing and felt my legs grazing the wall. I fell backwards off the roof top. 

This moment changed my life completely. 

The fall

The church was 18 metres high and it felt like forever before I hit the ground. I had a flurry of thoughts as I fell. How was I going to land? Maybe I could bounce on my butt and back on my feet? The shot I was aiming for, did it go in the basket? And most important of all - was I going to survive this fall?

The next thing I know, I’m lying on the ground, and everyone stands around me with a worried look on their face. The questions keep racing through my head, and I’m grasping for answers that don’t come. What is going to happen now? Can I still play basketball? My thoughts get interrupted - they ask if I am okay. I say: yes, just call an ambulance to be on the safe side. The truth is, I am not okay, not at all. 

Me and my crew back in the days. Ready to take over the world . . .

A long wait...

The medical care didn’t come immediately. I was lying completely still and waited. The pain was getting worse and worse, but I could still feel my legs. After 6 hours the church minister was tired and wanted to go home. He said that I had to move outside of the church area. He didn’t believe me when I said that I had fallen down from the roof. So he takes my arms and pulls me up so I am sitting. As this happens I can feel the bones from my back go into the spine. My legs were in spasm for a few seconds and then I couldn’t feel them. Everyone there, including my family, begged the church minister to let me lie still, but he didn’t listen. He lifted me up off the ground and carried me out of the church yard. The pain knocked me out completely. He found a huge flower urn, put me in it, and went home. I regained consciousness and realized that I'ld been moved. My family and friends helped me down to the ground again. And about 2 hours after that, the ambulance finally arrived.  

Hospital care

At that time, Egypt’s public hospitals did not have any doctors on duty. It was only in the private ones, because that’s where the money was. I waited for 12 days before anyone came and examined me. Those 12 days were terrifying. In many countries in Africa, included South Sudan and Egypt, you rarely see disabled people. Not because they don’t exist, but because the community defines you as finished or incapable of living a normal life when you are injured or suffering from a disease. In my language we say that the disabled are halas, which means: finished. I am lying in this hospital bed, sharing a room with two other guys. We are all desperately in need of medical care. Before a doctor arrived, these two guys died of their injuries. I felt powerless. Not only was I scared for my own future, but for my family’s future as well. Who is going to take responsibility now? How do I get out of Egypt? And being a 16-year-old boy, it’s natural to think about girls as well. Who is going to like me now? A halas with no future? It was a difficult road ahead of me. Kissinger Deng, as I and everyone else knew him, was about to become a totally different person. 

Related: Taking charge of your life after a life-changing diagnosis/injury Part 1

Waiting for my legs to wake up

After those 12 days the doctor finally came. The pain was unbearable, but after those two guys died I had decided that I was not going to give up. In the end I got the surgery I needed, the best they could offer me at any rate. They could only administer a local anaesthetic and the surgery lasted for many hours. The sound from the iron they put inside me was awful. I still remember it when I think about that surgery. The doctors said that I would be up and walking again after a few days. They sent me home in a taxi, and back home I lay in bed, waiting for my legs to wake up. That day never came. 

My mom tried everything possible to help me. A lot of doctors visited who practiced alternative medicine and they all seemed to believe that they had the solution. The first two years I didn’t even have a wheelchair. My only view was the ceiling over my bed. Because I was unable to move around I got pressure ulcers and had to lie on my stomach. 

The wheelchair

When I did eventually receive a wheelchair, I could not believe that I was finally going to get out of this bed, see the world outside my room again. The wheelchair was very expensive, and also very heavy. It was nothing like the wheelchair I have today. It was Egypt´s independence  day and we all went out to celebrate with friends and family. We met a gang of Egyptians. They beat me up and stole the wheelchair. We contacted the police, but at that time there was about 1 million Sudanese in Egypt, and the police didn’t treat us like they treated the Egyptians. They didn’t spend much time trying to help me. I was back in my bed again. 

My mom never gave up. She contacted all the help organizations she could think of, telling my story in the hope that they could help in some way. A priest from the Catholic church we attended in Alexandria wanted to help me. He contacted hospitals in the USA, sent my medical record and found doctors who thought they could help me. My oldest brother had already moved to the USA so I could go and live with him. At the hospital there they wanted to fix the errors from the first surgery. There was only one downside of this… I had to go alone, leaving my family in Egypt. 

Ticket to Norway

My ability to take care of my family would be much improved if surgery proved effective. Out of the blue, another opportunity presented itself on the day before I was due to leave for the US. The UN contacted us and said that they could move the whole family to Norway. We had never heard of this country before, and didn’t know how we would be received and make a life for ourselves. The whole family supported me and said that I needed to choose what was best for me; USA with a promise of fantastic medical care or Norway, with a promise of a better life for my whole family. 

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Topics: Sports and leisure, Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)