No Legs, but Chasing Gold
by Yolanda Bobeldijk
The British soldier Derek Derenalagi lost both legs in 2007 when his vehicle hit a road side bomb in Afghanistan. Despite his injuries, he has a positive outlook on life, and wants to inspire others. He is training for the 2012 Paralympics in London. “I am going for gold. What a statement that would be.”
“It looks easy, the way I am walking, doesn’t it? I can tell you, it’s not easy. The prosthetic legs are very heavy.” Derek Derenalagi (36) slowly sinks into a chair in his living room. He has a big smile after getting back from the gym, where he has been training for shot-putting and javelin throwing. Derenalagi has been working out with former athlete Tessa Sanderson, who won a gold medal for the javelin at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Derek’s outlook on life has changed since he narrowly escaped death in Afghanistan. He wants to be an inspiration to others; not just for soldiers or the disabled, but for everyone. “Whether you are disabled or not, everyone is struggling at some point in their lives. I want to focus on positive things. I want to make a difference.”
‘I thought I was going to die’
The accident made him more focused, Derek explains. He clearly remembers the day he lost his legs. “It happened July 17, 2007. We were on patrol. When we drove backwards to park we hit a road side bomb. The vehicle wasn’t protected. I was thrown out of the car thirty metres. When I looked down, I saw a pool of blood. I thought I was going to die and that I would never see my wife and children again.”
Derek quickly looks at his wife next to him, holding a cup of coffee. “It was hard to breathe. I believe in Jesus and that he died on the cross, so I thought of Him. I looked up at the sky and prayed: ‘Dear Lord, if you think I can encourage other people and help them find your Kingdom, then please, give me my life back.’ I saw the sun coming up and suddenly felt very calm. All fear disappeared and I was suddenly sure I was going to live.”
His back was broken and his legs were shattered. He also lost a dangerous amount of blood. The medical team dragged him from the battlefield to the helicopter. “I heard people screaming. A nurse told me: ‘Derek, be strong, you are going to be fine.’ Her voice was echoing from far away. At that point, I thought I was going to die. It’s the last thing I remember of that day.”
When Derek woke up, he was in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Birmingham. His wife was sitting beside him. “I told her I wanted to get up to go to the toilet. She looked at me and said: ‘You can’t. You have lost your legs’.” Derek could still feel his legs, even though they had been amputated; a sensation called phantom pain. He couldn’t look down as he was in a brace to keep his back in position. His wife took a picture with her digital camera to show Derek he really had lost his legs. “Tears came to my eyes when I saw the picture. But immediately I realised: I lost my legs, but I am still alive.”
Lust for life
Derek’s face continuously shows the gratitude of being alive, his determination to inspire others. “After three weeks I wanted to go to the gym. The doctors laughed at me: ‘You are still too weak,’ they said.
“Technically I died three times. Just after the accident I was resuscitated and twice more in hospital. My commanding officer was told that he had lost me. They were going to put me in a body bag, a coffin. Then one of the doctors saw a slight pulse movement and they revived me again.” Derek pauses. “God intervened. He knew I still had work to do.”
However Derek’s recovery took courage and determination. “I wanted to walk again, but it wasn’t easy. The prosthetic legs are heavy, so first you have to get in shape and retain enough body power. It was hard work, and there was no room for self pity.”
He had to learn to walk on short prosthetic legs before he could wear the regular size ones. Although this made him look very short, it didn’t stop him from going out. “In the supermarket kids asked me: ‘What happened to your legs?’ Their parents were really embarrassed, which was very funny. I replied: ‘It’s because of drinking and smoking. Never do that, or you will lose your legs too’.”
Help for Heroes
His boundless optimism was noticed by Bryn and Emma Parry, a couple who visited the hospital wing in August 2007. They were impressed with Derek’s positive attitude, and the similar stories of other soldiers and therefor set up a charity called Help for Heroes. So the Parrys set up a charity called Help for Heroes. The organisation raises awareness for wounded soldiers, finances recovery centres, and has become a well-known charity in the United Kingdom. The British TV talent show X-Factor has already recorded two charity hit singles for Help for Heroes.
Derek has been involved with Help for Heroes from the start. Due to his dark skin colour he is also a role model for ethnic minorities. Although he feels English, Derek is originally from Fiji, a former United Kingdom colony in the Pacific.
Support for British soldiers is important, he says. “It doesn’t matter in what war they fight - we need to support them. Not everyone is as positive as me. A lot of wounded colleagues find it very hard to come to terms with their injuries and find it difficult to be part of their local communities.”
Derek wants to inspire others and is therefore training to take part in the 2012 Paralympics in London. The training is hard, but thanks to his wife’s support he is determined to go on. His faith also helps him to pursue his goal. “I am going for gold,” he says defiantly. “What a statement that would be. I want to show that it can be done. Being disabled is not always easy, but I don’t regret losing my legs. There’s still so much that I can do.”
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