Hansie’s story

To give you some insight into my life, I’ve decided to share ‘snapshots’ of my life with you … those milestone events that essentially make Hans Dreyer, Hans Dreyer. It’s never easy to look back and communicate these things with raw honesty; to peel back those protective layers that hide the pain … but it’s so important. Through this series I hope you’ll somehow be able to better relate to the man behind the advice … to understand that I’ve ‘been there’ and ‘done that’. Above all I hope that my struggles (and my victories) will encourage you to see that Bipolar Disorder can be a blessing if you understand it, and that you can learn how to live a successful, enriching life despite it. You CAN achieve amazing things, and it’s NEVER TOO LATE to embrace this truth! Bipolar Disorder needn’t be the terrible monster that ruins families, promising careers and lives.

Let me start by sharing the single most tragic event in my life … the death of our youngest son, Hansie.


Then you did it… that one thing that we were so afraid you’d do. It was one wintry Wednesday; a day that started like any other day… Paulina still made you tea when you came home from school that day; you weren’t feeling well, you told her. Then she heard you locking our bedroom door. She even heard the safe key ‘click’ as it unlocked. While she stood around, wondering what on earth she should do next, Paulina heard the shot that shattered our hearts into thousands of little pieces.

Panic-stricken, she ran into the street… it was exactly the time that moms picked up their Grade 1 and 2 kids from the Primary School across the road from our house. She ran up to the first mother she saw, hysterically clinging to her and begging her to come and help. They rushed into our house together. By this stage, blood had already begun to seep through the floorboards of the top story.

The telephone call I received, somewhat prepared your mom and I for what was to come. “You need to come home right away. There was a shooting accident. The bedroom door is locked, and there’s blood.”

On the way home, Mom and I prayed that it wouldn’t be serious… that you’d only managed to fire a shot through your arm or shoulder… that you’d still be with us. I dashed up the wooden staircase and kicked our bedroom door down. Mom stayed in the kitchen… her eyes transfixed on the blood seeping through. There was no way someone would still be alive after losing all that blood…

There you lay on the floor, with your pillow and duvet… on the spot that you and Mom still huddled together in front of the heater that morning… did you feel safe here? It was horrific… your face, blue… and the bullet wound in your head. The entry wound was on the right hand side, and Mom felt sick when she remembered a conversation she’d had with you a few weeks earlier. You had asked her professional opinion as a GP, whether it was true that the temporal bone was the thinnest part of the skull, and she’d confirmed that. The exit wound on the left hand side was where damage was clearly evident… where the blood had gushed out.

Mom ran upstairs, fell to her knees and held you… the paramedic said, “You can leave him, Ma’am, he’s already brain-dead.” But when she took your hand in hers, she could clearly feel a pulse… her hands instinctively moved to feel a pulse in the jugular vein… there was a strong pulse there! Our precious, gorgeous 14 year-old curly-haired, blue-eyed boy… Her anxious cry shook the indecisiveness right out of the paramedic. “My child’s heart is still beating… DO SOMETHING!!”

“Oxygen saturation of 60%,” he announced after pegging the meter to your thumb. “Sixty percent is not good enough… bring a respirator, quickly!”

The policeman at the scene had one objective: to get Mom away from you and out of the room, at all costs. I calmly held her and said, “My wife’s a doctor. You’re not going to get her out of the room like this.”

My calmness seemed to help calm Mom down somewhat, and it dawned on her that she was just trying to postpone the inevitable. She knew from that first moment that your brain would have been so damaged, that it would never be able to be reconciled with what we know as ‘life’… it would have been foolish to keep your body alive without any chance of your brain being able to function on its own… and yet, we still decided to have you taken by ambulance to H.F. Verwoerd Hospital (now known as Steve Biko Hospital). Meanwhile, news spread to our nearest and dearest… if I recall, it was your big sister Hanri who had the composure to make that first call.

Funny the things one remembers… I remember grasping at sips of tea through the tears… my mouth felt like cork. Where did everyone come from? They made more tea, they held us, they prayed with us and made more telephone calls… Was it half an hour? Maybe an hour… it felt like time stood still at that stage… we decided to leave to go to the hospital. Your best friends Henno and Christo accompanied us, as did Henriëtte, the girl who stole your heart. Eventually three cars were packed with the friends who used to come home with you after school, and a few of Mom’s and my close friends.

On the way, Mom and I read each other’s minds and hearts… we decided, almost with one breath, that your organs should be donated. It’s funny how, prior to that moment, the very notion of organ donation made me feel claustrophobic… when Hanri had still wanted to purchase a ‘Medic Alert’ bracelet in order to record her organ donor status… it was as if the idea had ripened in our subconscious minds.

A pleasant, upbeat young doctor met us in the Trauma Ward and took us to you. “But Auntie Mariëtte, he’s still breathing – look how his chest is still moving rhythmically!” Henriëtte got this short-lived flash of hope in her eyes. “No my love, it’s the machine that’s doing his breathing for him… he can’t do it on his own anymore,” Mom explained.

We stood there with our hands on your chest … tears crashing down mercilessly … your hand was still warm to the touch, just like that of any patient who was being kept alive against the odds. I think you were already in heaven, my boy… it was your body lying there… the bullet wound didn’t look so horrific any more… it was covered with some gauze and plaster… looked so ordinary.

We surrounded your bed and I prayed… not that you’d carry on living, but that the Lord would give us strength and serenity.

After all of us said our goodbyes, the Head of the Organ Donor Team was standing to the side, waiting to brace the topic. Fortunately, we were prepared for this… the signatures were a mere formality.

At 11 o’clock that night, you were officially declared dead, with the cause of death recorded as ‘heart failure whilst under unaesthetic’. Despite it being a time of intense pain and mourning, we were warmly wrapped in the comfort of those who cared about us.

Your pals lay around on our lawn and spoke, just like they used to, most days after school… except they were gutted … the wind had been knocked right out of them… especially young Dewan… another member of your inner circle, who only found out about the tragedy at Rugby practice that afternoon.

I had always wondered what it would be like to stand at the deathbed of a child… would I cry hysterically? Would I remain in control and try and ‘fix’ the situation? When you and your siblings were small, mom still had such a fear of something happening to one of you. We were a wonderful family… Hanri aged 23, Tom aged 22, 16-year-old Tiaan, and you, my special one, you who were only 14. You had an incredible connection with each other… so much so that people actually remarked on the unique bond.

Back in the early days I prayed and asked God please to protect you children… and even though I ended my prayer with, “Lord, your will be done”, I still had this underlying angst… I used to wonder what if God were to call one of you home early. Until one day. Up to this point I felt as if I was wrestling with God about this… and on that particular day, it was as if the Lord said to me, “My child, if it must happen, I’ll give you the strength and the grace you need, to deal with it.” That peace thankfully stayed with me for years… the realisation that I couldn’t look after each of you, 24/7, eventually set me free. I realised that only God could be with you all, round the clock.

The day after the tragedy, our friend Judith came to us with a scripture… Genesis 15:6: “… and he believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness…”
This was a huge comfort to me. Although I knew beyond a shudder of a doubt that you had accepted Jesus as your saviour, I asked God if He would please send someone along our path, with a verse, just for us.

Then another friend came with this verse from Job 14:5: “Man’s days are determined; You have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed…”

This was the beginning of a new perspective on your death. God established the days of your life as well. When Mom was pregnant with you, it was almost as if God didn’t want any of her planning in the scheme of things. While her other two pregnancies involved fertility treatment, it hadn’t been so with your conception. Even though we wanted a family with four children, God did it HIS way when it came to you. You were the only little one that Mom was able to breastfeed, and she kept thinking, “Hansie, I’m raising you for myself.” Mom always went on about the other three kids being nuts about me, and that she’d dearly wanted a child who was just crazy about her! (I protested profusely, but we all know how moms can be sensitive about this sort of thing, right?!)

According to mom, this was not to be! You were the one who crept even deeper in my heart, my special boy. Always ready for a hug or a kiss, right up to just before that fateful day. You were the sensitive one, especially when it came to Mom’s and my feelings. You never wanted us to be sad or worried about anything. Is this why you hid your Depression so well? So that we wouldn’t worry more?

I remember when you were in Grade 7 (Standard 5 in those days). You were so depressed and filled with anxiety that winter… you just wanted to hide away… Mom recalls you burying your head under her arm if you’d go to the mall. When spring arrived, you seemed to feel better. Then, in Grade 8, (Standard 6) there was the time that you fired a shot into the ceiling… the barrel of the pistol still seared your cheek…

After three weeks of treatment in the adolescent unit of a psychiatric clinic, everything seemed to go better. Yet now, in retrospect, we sadly recall little things you said, which we didn’t realise at the time were pointing to the fact that that black helplessness called Depression was encroaching on you yet again. You most certainly planned the end, even though there was no note. The safe key was returned to its place; the furniture was repositioned in front of the safe… almost as if you were trying to tell us that this wasn’t an impulsive decision, an accident… it was a deliberate act that you definitely didn’t want to have anyone intercept… and so you locked our bedroom door just to make sure…

Suddenly, so many puzzle pieces fell into place, in respect of the patients we’d counselled for Depression. I suppose I’ve become resigned to the fact that some people, who are in such a dark place where their mood and emotional state are so disturbed, experience a complete annihilation of their survival instinct. In its place, an urge to self-destruct takes over. If one suicide attempt isn’t successful, they try until they get it right.

This is why we know that suicide isn’t that ‘unforgivable sin’… that moment when your death precedes your logistical ability to ask for pardon… Suicide is the most serious symptom of a seriously sick individual. It’s the final symptom in the build-up of a disease… as impossible to prevent in some people as it is to prevent the rupture of an artery, resulting in a stroke, in other people with hypertension.

Mom’s sister-in-law Christine coined it in her note of sympathy after that terrible night: “At the end of the day, Hansie… holding his big-man cigarette, with his taut rugby physique, was just a scared, sick little boy who was standing up against this broken world, and the outrageous demands it makes on our children.”

How low you must have felt… at least, now, you are finally free from that prison of despair, my boy. You’re sitting with your Father in Heaven, never again to be assessed by worldly standards that only caused you pain and disillusionment. How comforting to know that you passed the most important exam on earth, with flying colours… the test of true love. Even your youngest cousin could recall your expressions of affection, and your patience with the little ones!

Never again will anyone complain about your ‘illegible handwriting’ or your hair that’s half a centimetre longer than it should be, according to those school rules!

Cousin Thomas clearly remembered your conversation with him, just a few days before your death, about organ donation. Thomas said there was NO way he’d be an organ donor… that it paints the most horrific mental pictures for him… and yet you returned to this topic several times that day, stressing that ‘It would be cool to donate one’s organs to someone who needs them!’ Do you know how relieved we were when Thomas told us this?

When we heard that you had been declared dead during the anesthesia, we were wondering whether you had died before your organs could be harvested successfully, as you had wished… but later on, a friend told us that a man in her home meeting group had been pushed into theatre at 10 p.m. that very night, with kidney failure. He had undergone dialysis three times a week, and that night, your kidney saved his life, my boy! Your other kidney was donated to a man who had been waiting for a suitable donor, for 16 years.

I believe that, since the time you were born, God planned that you’d be the ‘match’ that would save those two people’s lives. The corneas in those gorgeous blue eyes of yours were donated to a woman who was so short-sighted, she was due to receive a guide dog the following week… thanks to you, she can see today! Even your strong, fit, healthy heart is beating in someone else’s ribcage today.

These realisations left us comforted… even excited, knowing that your death wasn’t in vain… your story made such an impact on certain people that it was the beginning of a whole new adventure with their Heavenly Father for them.

Rest in Peace, my boy… and know that I am at peace, because you are finally at peace, enjoying the sheer glory or heaven alongside your dear Mom who passed away unexpectedly, many years after you. Love you forever, Hansie.

One comment

  1. This resonated so much with me.

    My deepest condolences Dr. Dreyer.

    You are a blessing here on earth – serving your very own purpose in service to others.

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