Student who suffered 95% burns as a child graduates with flying colours
Despite being given only a 20% chance of survival after a gas explosion 15 years ago caused burn wounds to 95% of her body, a young student has defied the odds and will join hundreds of University of Cape Town (UCT) graduates when they are capped this month.
Aniek Nieuwenhuis, 24, a fine art student at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art, will graduate with a full suite of distinctions for her academic programme. Her outstanding performance makes her the first student in that department to secure this achievement.
Nieuwenhuis based her final thesis on art therapy, which she explained focuses on art as a therapeutic process, unpacking exactly how it helps survivors make sense of a traumatic event.
But her road to university was lined with obstacles.
The events leading to the March 2004 accident, when she was only nine, are etched into her memory. What was meant to be a fun family getaway to a mountainside cabin in the Kogelberg Nature Reserve near Gordon’s Bay turned to tragedy when a faulty connection on a gas cylinder caused a gas leak that led to an explosion.
The blaze left Nieuwenhuis and her father Paul with severe burn wounds.
"When I eventually got to hospital, I had suffered third-degree burns to 95% of my body – 85% to my body’s surface and 10% was internal. I spent five months in Red Cross [War Memorial] Children’s Hospital," she said.
Nieuwenhuis had 50 operations to get her life back on track. "I underwent many operations. I needed to learn to take control of my body again. I needed to learn to walk and even to eat. I needed to readjust my body completely," she said.
When the incident occurred, Nieuwenhuis was in grade 4. She missed a full year of school, but when she was finally well enough to return, she was allowed to move to grade 5.
"I suffered from a bit of 'imposter syndrome'. I felt like I fooled this institution into thinking I was good enough," she said of her academic career.
"I had to find myself as an artist and establish what I was trying to say and what I was trying to tell my community. It was hard and I was intimidated; everyone seemed to have it all. I later established that they were as frightened as I was."
Nieuwenhuis said achieving excellence was simple: love your degree and studying won't be a chore. She credits her academic performance on the fact that she enjoyed all her subjects and could relate to them in more ways than one.
"In arts you have the scope to insert your own interpretation of things. It allows you to think for yourself. This really inspired me and, in my view, made my studies so much easier," she said.
Nieuwenhuis has used her artistic talents to open up about her trauma. Last month she put together a photographic display for an exhibition titled Skin Deep at Gallery One11 in Cape Town at the invitation of artist SaySay.Love.
Nieuwenhuis used self-representation in her photographic art, describing it as a way of sharing her story and expressing the emotions she once suppressed.
"It’s my way of asking people to see my trauma, to acknowledge it and to look beyond my scars. It’s a gateway to helping people understand physical differences," she said.