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.

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