28 May 2021

Facing the fight - Ryno Kleynhans

How the right mindset kept him going

Ryno Kleynhans is no stranger to severe pain. Born with a condition called craniosynostosis which causes the sutures of the skull to close prematurely, hampering the growth of the brain, he suffered from chronic headaches until he was 12. ‘I’d had surgery for the condition as a baby, but no one realised that I was living in pain. Even the softest pillow was agony. The pain never let up, it was simply a question of severity,’ Ryno recalls. Then, one day, he passed out from pain. The family doctor decided to test for meningitis and discovered that Ryno was suffering from increased brain pressure. He was put on medication to equalise the pressure – the same medication taken by mountaineers climbing mountains like Kilimanjaro – and underwent nine lumbar punctures in two weeks to alleviate the condition.

While these measures did help, Ryno felt as though the headaches never went away completely; rather, they lingered like a phantom presence. Not that this stopped him from living a normal life. Granted, contact sport is out of the question – but although Ryno knew that it was unlikely he would ever live without pain, he was not prepared to let anything stand in the way of reaching his goals.

He knew this would not be easy. ‘When I turned 18, I felt like the headaches were returning. I wasn’t particularly scared about what this meant for my health, although I was disappointed. Most of all, I decided that it will not stop me from doing what I had always wanted: a CA qualification.’

Ryno had first found out about the profession when he had seen his uncle, who was an accountant, at work in his study during a visit. Although he was only in Grade 4 at the time, Ryno was fascinated by his uncle’s job. He researched it further, and the more he found out, the more interested he became. ‘It wasn’t just one aspect of the career that attracted me. It was everything, from the basic principles to debating.’

Working in the Eastern Cape was a major part of seeing that dream come true, even if it meant leaving his new wife at their home in Sasolburg. However, when the headaches became more intense, Ryno realised he needed help. This was confirmed when a visit to a doctor – followed by a CAT scan and MRI – led to a diagnosis of chiari malformation − a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal. Ryno says it’s extremely rare for an individual to have both craniosyntosis and chiari malformation, but despite the challenges that he knew were inevitable, he refused to give in.

To give himself the best chance of a successful recovery from the operation needed to create space for the cerebrospinal fluid to flow freely, Ryno waited to move back to Sasolburg before having surgery. His wife’s help made all the difference, he says. If he had stayed in East London, living on the 10th floor of the university’s residence with a lift that could not be counted on, his convalescence would have been even more difficult.

As it turned out, his operation was far more complicated than expected: when the wound created during the first operation was found to be leaking, Ryno underwent a second operation – but this failed to fix the problem and in fact gave rise to an infection. During the third and final operation, the doctor tried to perform a lumbar puncture, but the needle broke off in Ryno’s spine. Reluctant to subject him to even more trauma, a decision was taken to leave the needle where it was for now. However, this means that Ryno is unable to sit for longer than 45 minutes without experiencing pain in his legs. He has also lost sensation in his right arm and has to use hand-eye coordination to perform simple tasks because he is unable to intuit where in space his arm is.

Despite the enormity of his health issues, Ryno never for an instant considered discarding his studies. ‘I was determined to write my APC and APT in 2019,’ he says. Sadly, timing did not allow for this. Although Ryno admits that he was saddened, he drew strength from knowing that he would still be able to complete his CA(SA) within seven years. He passed the APT exam last year and is currently waiting for the results of the APC which he wrote in December. ‘I have never felt like quitting, and I’ve never known despair,’ he says. ‘Those emotions are foreign to me.’

Ryno says that his employer has been a tremendous support to him: practical measures like strict temperature control in his office (because temperature affects his pain) and adjusting his work line eased his recovery. Ironically, lockdown also made a difference: with no commuting taking up valuable time, Ryno was able to take a nap when he needed to during the afternoon and catch up at night. Thus bolstered, he was able to pass his APT last year.

Ryno is deservedly proud of what he has achieved so far and prouder still that he is on track to completing his studies as planned. But, he says, an even greater accomplishment would be motivating others. ‘One thing I learned during this journey is that your mind is the most incredibly powerful tool. You can be physically tired and emotionally drained, but if you have the right mindset, you can keep on going. Unless the world ends – quite literally – you always have a second chance to get up tomorrow and make things happen. If you decide to go for your goals, nothing can hold you back.’

So, what is his next goal? ‘I’ve been so focused on what’s happening right now and obtaining my CA that I haven’t thought that far ahead! When I was going through my operations, all I could think about was reaching this point,’ Ryno admits – although he reveals that he is entertaining the idea of becoming a motivational speaker. ‘We all have problems, and those problems all mean an enormous amount to us. If I can help even one person reach their goals despite those problems, I’ll be happy.’

In the meantime, Ryno continues to face every day as it comes. Despite already having overcome a great deal (he lost 36 kilograms in the months before surgery because he wasn’t able to keep down food or drink) and having three operations in six weeks, he still has lumbar punctures every six to eight weeks – without them, the pressure in his skull starts to build up once more. He is also aware that despite his doctors’ efforts, the pain may return at any time.

But that doesn’t bring him down. ‘I felt very weak after my operations – but only physically. Mentally, I was able to push through. My wife played a huge part in that. She was one of my main motivations. And I’m incredibly lucky. I love what I do – I love it so much that it doesn’t even feel like work.’

Author: Lisa Witepski