Sheldon Tovey’s amazing recovery
Twenty years ago Neil Tovey’s son Sheldon nearly died after being burnt in a hot bath. Today he’s a happy, independent young man
LIKE his famous dad, he finds his happy place on a football field. His dream growing up was to be a kids’ soccer coach and today Sheldon Tovey is doing just that, serving as assistant coach for youngsters at his local football club. But it’s a dream that nearly didn’t come true. Sheldon (21) is what his family describe as “a walking miracle” who almost didn’t get to see his second birthday.
The son of former Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey nearly died after sustaining third-degree burns over 40% of his body after getting into a bathtub, putting in the plug and filling it with scalding water 20 years ago.
At the time Neil (now 55) – who led Bafana to glory at the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations – was winding down his illustrious sporting career and was a player and assistant coach for Kaizer Chiefs.
Sheldon’s accident left Neil and his wife, Nadine (57), shattered and took its toll on their relationship.
The couple divorced in 2006 although they remain on good terms and Nadine gets on well with Neil’s second wife, Michelle, whom he married in 2015.
But the years following Sheldon’s ordeal have been hard.
The little boy spent five months in hospital – three of them in intensive care – and although he pulled through he was left badly scarred. He was also deprived of oxygen when his heart stopped in hospital and he suffered brain damage.
Yet despite all this Sheldon has excelled and today is “an independent young man who gets himself around”, Nadine says.
He started a six-month programme as an office assistant at Alexander Forbes in Sandton in February and is loving his freedom.
Mom can be a little overprotective, he says. “It’s much easier without her bossing me around.”
SHELDON was 19 months old and had just started walking when the incident that would change the course of his life happened. He and sister Jessica (then 4) were home in Northcliff, Johannesburg, with the family’s domestic helper, Ragel Lecholo, while their dad was at work and their mom was taking big sister Bianca (then 8) to the doctor.
Ragel was preparing supper while the kids played around her. “After a while I noticed Sheldon wasn’t in the kitchen,” she told us at the time (YOU, 23 April 1998).
“I thought he was in his sister’s room and asked Jessica to make sure. She called me and said her brother was crying in Neil and Nadine’s bathroom.”
By the time his crying was heard he’d managed to fill the bath with 10cm of scalding water and was kneeling in it. He was rushed to Milpark Hospital in Parktown where doctors told his parents to prepare for the worst.
“I don’t think people realise how serious burns can be,” Nadine says. “It was touch and go for so many months.
“His lungs collapsed, he had to have
dialysis, his kidneys packed up. They told me he’d be blind. There were just so many other things that came with the burns.”
Sheldon, chatting to us with Nadine and Jessica (24) in the living room of their Randpark Ridge home, doesn’t remember anything about that terrible afternoon.
“I sometimes read old articles about me that I used to find in boxes in the garage,” he says.
Jessica, now a speech therapist and audiologist at Bertha Gxowa Hospital, Germiston, has only vague memories of that day – and her most vivid recollection is of the smell of her brother’s scalded flesh.
“They always say smell is the strongest sensory organ,” she says. “I remember seeing him in the water, then I froze. I walked calmly back to our helper and told her Sheldon was in the bath. That’s all I remember.”
Sheldon’s sisters weren’t allowed into the ward to visit their baby brother because of the risk of infection but the nurses on duty would sometimes draw up the blind in the ward next door so the girls could see him through the window.
It was a tough time for the family, Nadine recalls. “Fortunately I wasn’t working so I used to spend my days at the hospital. I’d get there early in the morning, leave around lunchtime to go home and do the runaround with the two girls, then go back to the hospital in the evening.
“It was like a roller coaster. There were some rough days when I’d get to the hospital and they’d say he’d had a bad night. It was hard going on me.”
Sheldon was eventually discharged and when he reached school-going age he attended special needs facilities, starting with Footprints in Randburg then Unity College.
“A lot of people asked why he had to go to special schools because he was able to walk, read and write but because he lost so much oxygen he ended up with learning disabilities,” Jessica explains.
“Socially he finds it difficult to communicate. If you ask him to do something you have to give him one instruction at a time, not three in a row. I think it’s more a problem with auditory processing.”
After Unity College Sheldon went to the Living Link, a college for adults with intellectual disabilities. The training centre helps students make the transition from school to the working world.
“They have a work-readiness programme,” Nadine says. “The kids go to college for six months then work at the Dis-Chem head office in Midrand, and after that the Ernst & Young head office in Sandton. It teaches them to become independent.”
Sheldon isn’t a big talker and takes his time to think about and answer our questions. Yet he’s a confident young man, expressive with his hands, not defined by his scars.
He’s enjoying his six-month stint at Alexander Forbes, Nadine says, and has started taking the Gautrain, Uber and shuttles to get to and from work instead of relying on his mom for a lift all the time. “He’s amazed me,” she says.
WHAT does an average day in Sheldon’s life look like? “I get up, change, eat, go to work,” he says. At work he helps out around the office and in the kitchen. After a day’s shift, it’s off to soccer at Randburg Football Club – the highlight of his day.
“And that’s pretty much Monday to Friday,” Sheldon says. He also helps out at the club over weekends.
He played for the club as a goalkeeper for a few years but is now assistant coach for under-13s. “Saturday is match day.”
When he’s at home he likes to relax by watching TV and playing video games.
Fortunately the accident hasn’t left him with a fear of water – probably because he doesn’t remember anything about it, Nadine says. “He’s never been afraid to get in the bath or the pool.”
Nadine, who works for Reach for a Dream Foundation, says Sheldon – who’s had several operations over the years – still needs a major procedure on his right foot.
“His right side was burnt more severely than the left,” she adds. “He’s had loads of ops. We had to keep going to the physio and for occupational therapy when he was growing up. Learning to write and speech therapy came later.”
“No one sees him as ‘Sheldon, the boy who got burnt,’ ” Jessica adds. “We treat him as normally as we can.”
“We don’t pamper him,” Nadine says. “Although Jessica thinks I do.” Then she smiles. “Well, perhaps I do sometimes – but not often.”
LEFT: Sheldon Tovey has come a long way since sustaining third-degree burns when he was 19 months old (ABOVE RIGHT).
Sheldon and his mom, Nadine, look at pictures documenting his ordeal. He now works as an office assistant at Alexander Forbes in Sandton.
LEFT: In his teens Sheldon played for Randburg Soccer Club as a goalkeeper. BELOW: His dad, Neil, was Bafana Bafana captain in the ’90s.