ELTJE MALZBENDER has been to hell and back since crashing off her bike while cycling on an isolated King Country road two years ago today (5 March 2018).
The demons which plagued her like “why me?” and “my life will never be the same again” are still there but the psychotherapy sessions included in her ongoing treatment offer her coping mechanisms to overcome the negativity.
The 55-year-old German physiotherapist, who features in Life Unlimited Charitable Trust’s online information hub is on a mission – to represent New Zealand at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.
Other things have to fall in place well before then and are included in the goals she set herself for 2018.
It was on March 5, 2016 that Eltje came off her bike near Waitomo and ended up in Waikato Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit with a severe traumatic brain injury. Rehabilitation continued at ABI in Auckland, a facility for people with brain injury or stroke.
She has ataxia, a condition that affects her balance and gave her double vision from a damaged eye muscle. Late last month (February) she had squint surgery on both her eyes to alleviate the double vision.
“I will never ever have good balance, but this should make it better than it was,” she says.
Since the accident, Eltje has worn a patch over her left eye which has helped her balance somewhat.
Without the patch, her stunning blue eyes shine out of her blood-shot sockets with searing honesty and pain.
They are a window to her soul and hint at the demons still at play.
The journey has been horrific with many ups and downs. Her sheer determination coupled with fitness and discipline has seen her achieve things others with similar injuries would struggle with.
Eltje moved from Te Kuiti to Cambridge last year to be closer to her cycling coach Michael Bland and the facilities at the Avantidrome. Part of her had always hoped she could get back on a bicycle so when Michael gave her a racing tricycle, she recalls being very offended.
Now she realises the tricycle and The Alinker, a bright yellow walking bike without pedals sold exclusively in New Zealand by Life Unlimited Charitable Trust, will enable her to have an active life and get her to Tokyo in two years’ time.
But other things have to fall into place starting with gaining New Zealand citizenship and a reclassification from the T2 para-cycling classification to T1. With those two, she can potentially compete for New Zealand at World Cup events in Europe later this year.
T2 is for cyclists with more moderate loss of stability and function. T1 is cyclists with severe locomotive dysfunctions and insufficient balance to use a regular bicycle. Both classes only compete in road event and use tricycles (hence the T).
Eltje recently sold her Te Kuiti house and has bought a house in Cambridge. One regret with that is she will lose contact with neighbour Raewyn Pierce.
“I love helping and so every morning I check her blinds are open in case she’s fallen.
“I check she has enough food because I know she sometimes doesn’t eat,” says Raewyn
“She just whips in and out and helps me out. Magic would be a word to describe her,” says Eltje.
The big plus in the move is Eltje will be able to store her Alinker and tricycle in the attached garage. It is also close enough for Raewyn to keep checking up on her.
Eltje’s other big goal is to increase her independence on the Alinker.
“I still struggle very much with my orientation but it’s getting better. Just recently I went to the supermarket, through it and back home, by myself.”
She can also negotiate the 1.7kms to her coach’s place without getting lost. Supported Living regularly provides walking practice.
“I walked 800m without a stick,” says Eltje.
While it is most unlikely Eltje will be able to go back to full-time physiotherapy because of her vision and arm instability, she feels she could pick up work consulting.
There are two large reminders in Eltje’s lounge about what cycling and health mean to her. The pictures, taken while on a cycling trip in the Dolomites mountain range of north east Italy in 2015, show her at the top of a peak and another of her with her arms over her head overcome with the beauty that is a village on the Sella Ronda ski circuit.
When they first went up, they added to Eltje’s negativity; now they drive her to improve and succeed.
“I just remember how I felt being out on my bike in such a beautiful place.”