With limited knowledge of carpentry, Google as a reference and driven by his desire to walk again, Jabulani Ntuli constructed his own prosthetic leg after losing his limb in a freak tractor accident.

On 20 March 2020, the 27-year-old farm worker’s life changed dramatically when his foot slipped and got caught in the moving shaft of the tractor he was standing on while spraying bean crops. His right foot was crushed in the incident, and his leg had to be amputated just below the knee.

Mr Ntuli was transferred from the vegetable farm in Marble Hall, Limpopo to Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Auckland Park on 29 April after spending a month at Milpark Hospital.

I met Mr Ntuli on the day that he arrived at the rehabilitation hospital. I could tell from the very start that he was a motivated patient with ambitions to get back on his feet – literally and figuratively speaking. He spent a month at our hospital before being discharged on 29 May.

During his time with us, he practised hard with his physiotherapist and occupational therapist and showed significant improvement. He was assessed by the team from Heinrich Grimsehl (HG) prosthetics and orthotics. Unfortunately, Mr Ntuli had to be discharged without a prosthetic leg as there was no funding yet for his prosthesis.

Before he left, HG explained to Mr Ntuli what his prosthesis would look like and assured him that he would be able to return to the rehabilitation hospital once the application for the prosthetic leg had been approved.

Once Mr Ntuli got back home, he started thinking about his future prosthetic leg and realised he could not walk long distances with crutches. His shoulders would start hurting after prolonged use while using two crutches.

“If you have to walk with crutches you lose three limbs because you can’t use your arms to carry anything,” HG said.

That is when Mr Ntuli decided to build his own prosthetic leg. He used Google to look for examples and also drew on the information that HG had given him while he was still in the hospital. The material he used amounted R120.

The new leg on the left and his own attempt on the right

“I decided to use an empty bottle of 20 litres because I realised that this thing is hard…it can’t just bend,” he said.

“Then I used a metal saw. I (then) used a rain gauge for the shape, and then I measured my stump. For the bottom (of the prosthesis), I used timber.”

He further explained how he used the metal saw to cut out the desired shape. Mr Ntuli then fixed the plastic with bolts to a piece of wood he had at home. He took an old piece of sponge for the lining inside and attached polystyrene to give it a smooth surface at the front.

Asked what he thought about Mr Ntuli’s attempt at making his own prosthesis, HG said he was impressed by the amateur prosthetist’s tenacious spirit.

“The best we could do at the time was to explain to him in detail how his prosthesis would look like. He was then discharged without a prosthesis,” HG explained.

“So, this man went home and built himself what we explained to him in the hospital. Not a bad attempt.”

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Mr Ntuli again on 14 August. I had to look twice before I could tell which was his own leg and which was the prosthetic leg. Mr Ntuli had finally been re-admitted to the rehabilitation hospital as his funder approved his prosthesis. This meant he would be measured and fitted with a prosthetic leg, and he would receive therapy to teach him how to walk on the new leg.

When I asked Mr Ntuli where he had learned to make things (such as his prosthetic leg), he indicated that he learned woodwork from his father. He said he later learned how to weld on the vegetable farm.

“Before I was working with the old man…he taught me how to build kitchen units. I also know how to build burglar bars.”

He said although he enjoys working on the farm, he would like to expand his skills in carpentry and welding. The problem is that I don’t have the materials.”

HG added that although Mr Ntuli could not use his home-made prosthesis without crutches and a pressure sore was starting to develop, at first glance, he looked normal. Psychologically he helped himself and he re-established his place in society.

“The message to himself and everybody around him was ‘I am a survivor!’ If you have to walk with crutches, you lose three limbs because you cannot use your arms to carry anything. It is almost like being wheelchair-bound. By making his own prosthesis, we knew that his rehabilitation would be less challenging for everybody involved because we knew he wanted to move forward no matter what. “We are proud to say that after fitting Mr Ntuli with his new prosthesis, he is strolling through the hospital corridors unassisted, happy and with the full use of all his limbs.”