DEFYING all the odds – and with a little help from his guide dog – quadriplegic Heinrich Williams will graduated from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) with a national diploma in industrial engineering today.
Crossing the stage with Williams, 45, was his “study buddy”, Viking, who has had full graduation attire custom-made by Croft, Magill & Watson for the event.
Viking, a four-year-old Golden Retriever mix, attended all Williams’s lectures and exams as a service dog, assisting him in achieving his qualification.
“He deserves to graduate with me, he was present in all my classes,” Williams said.
Williams is classified as a C6 quadriplegic, which means he still has full head and neck movement, with limited use of his biceps as well as his wrists and fingers, which allows him to grasp objects lightly.
Williams had to adapt to life in a wheelchair after contracting a bacterial infection which resulted in an abscess pressing against his spinal cord.
In 2010, Williams was in China assisting an automotive company with the design and development of a new vehicle when tragedy struck.
“Two weeks into the trip, I started having spasms [in my muscles],” he said.
Shortly after the spasms began, Williams woke up one morning not feeling too well, took a shower and headed back to bed.
“My left leg and arm were numb. By the time paramedics arrived, I was completely paralysed,” he said.
According to Williams, the doctors in China could not give him any explanation as to how he could have contracted the infection.
After returning to South Africa and struggling to find work, Williams – acting on a friend’s advice – registered to study at NMMU in 2013.
“Returning to a classroom after 20 years was daunting. I was older and disabled,” the qualified aircraft electrician, who spent 12 years with the SA Air Force, said.
Williams said his first year back at university was the hardest, but his experiences at NMMU had been great.
“Young, old and across all races, Viking and I were accepted and able to mingle very well,” he said.
Williams has been supported by his wife, Deidre, who is also his caregiver. They have been married for 14 years.
“I worked hard, many long nights, but my wife is extremely encouraging and positive,” he said.
In September last year, Williams was honoured at NMMU’s inaugural Innovator’s Evening for his contribution to innovation and technology transfer.
With the help of NMMU’s innovation office, he conceptualised the Qbell, “an innovative nurse-call button suitable for patients who cannot use existing buttons”.
It is an alternative call button that can be used by patients with reduced or no hand/arm function.
It is being market tested at Life St George’s and Netcare Greenacres hospitals.