Cullinan was 22 and playing hooker for UP Onderstepoort’s first team when he suffered a dislocation between his C5 and C6 vertebrae as he tackled one of Vividus’ props on 5 May 2013. In the fourth year of his veterinary science degree, the tragedy left him a quadriplegic and robbed him of his dream profession and the lifestyle he’d envisioned for himself since childhood.
“I immediately went down and it felt like electricity was running through my entire body with severe muscle weakness but I never lost consciousness during the ordeal,” Vryburg-based Cullinan recalls 10 years on.
It’s a double blow that would break the will of most, but not that of the courageous Cullinan.
“Faith, hope and ignorance saved me in the early stages," he says.
"It helped me to not have to deal with all the losses at the same time but in smaller portions as I went along. The downside is that it took me a lot longer to let go and start living again.
“I’ve always been hard on myself, so it’s been a learning process to realise you’re running your own race and that your situation differs from others, even if there are similarities. You can’t compare your timeline to other people’s timelines.”
Seven months of gruelling rehabilitation followed at Life Riverfield Lodge and Mediclinic Muelmed, while the mental healing remains a work in progress.
“To a certain degree, I’m still fighting that [the mental] battle daily, because the veterinarian dream is more alive now than it was before my injury,” he admits.
It’s indeed a lifelong journey, however, he turned a vital corner on his psychological road to recovery and found a new way forward roughly a year after his injury when he started teaching physical sciences and mathematics to high school students, which matriculated into a stint as a math teacher at Kismet Secondary School from 2016 to 2018 before he branched out into tutoring again.
“The opportunity to teach as Kismet showed me that it’s still possible to make something out of myself and made me curious to see how far I can push things and what I can still achieve," says Cullinan.
"The tutoring started from home in the afternoons but when Covid came around, it forced me to do the classes online. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it has expanded my classes tremendously. Currently, it’s a mixture of online classes and personal sessions from my home.
“I have a passion for the youth, so that’s part of the reason why I went into tutoring and also to go beyond the academics and impart in them some life lessons like not to take anything for granted but be grateful for what you have. In that regard, I’ve also learned to make the most of the life I have and hopefully be an example for someone.”
He, too, is still studying. The 32-year-old’s finishing up a BSc degree in genetics and physiology through UNISA and is also doing an Animal Pharmaceuticals course through the South African Animal Health Association.
As for what the future holds after his studies, Cullinan says: “I'm not much of an entrepreneur because I’m not motivated by money. My main drive is to be able to help people or to join the farming/livestock industry in some capacity, where I feel I can play a role if I let myself. Mainly I want to feel that I’m making a contribution to society and do something that makes me excited to get out of bed in the morning.”
There for Cullinan since that fateful day is the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.
“The Players’ Fund paid for all my initial equipment and was there from day one with advice, guidance and support, especially in the beginning when things were hectic and I was entering unknown territory with very little information. Knowing that they are there if I need them gives me a lot of comfort,” he says.
“The rest of my support structure is my family and friends, mainly my parents whom I still live with and who help me with the few small things I still can’t do for myself.”
His story is one of raw resolve, starting over and continuously coping with loss. “We have very little control over the cards we’re dealt, but we can control how we respond and what we do with what we’ve been given. So to anyone in a similar position or who’s going through other hardships, stop complaining about things being unfair and start living your life to the best of your ability,” Cullinan concluded.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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